Together with prof. dr. Michael Musheno (University of California, Berkeley), prof. dr. Victor Bekkers (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Evelien Vink MSc (Erasmus University Rotterdam), I developed an article on how frontline workers, such as teachers and social workers, cope with stress at work. The article has been published in the Nr. 1 journal in the field of Public Administration worldwide: the Journal of Public Administration, Research & Theorypublished by Oxford University Press. It is based on a systematic review of the literature from over 30 years (1981-2014). It uses insights from psychology and public administration literature to understand coping during the delivery of public services (such as education, social work or policing). The article is titled “Coping During Public Service Delivery: A Conceptualization and Systematic Review of the Literature“.

Teacher stress and coping strategies

Specifically, we analyzed how coping strategies of frontline workers influence how they behave towards clients. For instance, a teacher can cope with stress by working extra hard for his students (in essence: moving towards clients). On the other hand, she can ration his time, making himself unavaible, not answering emails or additional request (in essence: moving away from clients). Furthermore, she can even become aggressive towards students, or rigidly follow each rule in the book (in essence: moving against clients). We show that frontline workers often “move towards clients”, showing that they aim to help clients, even under stressful conditions. However, we also found situations in which frontline workers used less favorable strategies. All in all, this article can be used to understand coping during public service delivery. Scholars can use the developed classification of coping strategies. Furthermore, we show new theoretical, methodological and empirical opportunities for future research.

The first goal of this article is to contribute to theory development by conceptualizing coping during public service delivery and developing a related classification. The second goal is to provide a general overview of how coping during public service delivery has been studied since 1980.

Click here for the direct link to the article “Coping During Public Service Delivery: A Conceptualization and Systematic Review of the Literature”, published in the Journal of Public Administration, Research & Theory

Abstract

Frontline workers, such as teachers and social workers, often experience stress when delivering public services to clients, for instance because of high workloads. They adapt by coping, using such practices as breaking or bending rules for clients, or rationing services. Although coping is recognized as an important response to the problems of frontline work, the public administration field lacks a comprehensive view of coping. The first contribution of this article is therefore theoretical: conceptualizing coping during public service delivery and developing a coherent classification of coping. This is done via a systematic review of the literature from 1981 to 2014. The second contribution is empirical: via a systematic review of the literature from 1981–2014 this article provides a framework and analytical account of how coping during public service delivery has been studied since 1980. It highlights the importance of the type of profession (such as being a teacher or a police officer), the amount of workload, and the degree of discretion for understanding how frontline workers cope with stress. It also reveals that frontline workers often draw on the coping family “moving towards clients” revealing a strong tendency to provide meaningful public service to clients, even under stressful conditions. We conclude with an agenda for future studies, examining new theoretical, methodological and empirical opportunities to advance understanding of coping during public service delivery.

Keywords

  • Coping
  • Street-level bureaucracy
  • Public service delivery
  • Frontline work
  • Behavioral public administration

Conceptualizing coping

Social worker stress and coping strategies

Coping during public service delivery is defined as behavioral efforts frontline workers employ when interacting with clients, in order to master, tolerate or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts they face on an everyday basis. To better understand coping during public service delivery, we distuingish between three main families:

- Moving towards clients: pragmatically adjusting to client’s needs in stressful situations. An example is a social worker giving an unemployed client some of her own money to buy food

- Moving away from clients: avoiding meaningful interactions with clients in stressful situations. An example is police officer saying ‘the office is very busy today, please return tomorrow’

- Moving against clients: directly confronting clients in stressful situations. An example is a teacher very strictly following a rule on no cell-phone use in class and sending students to the office immediately when they use a cell-phone

Within these ‘families’ of coping we can identify various ‘ways of coping’, or coping strategies. The example of the social worker giving an unemployed client some of her own money to buy food can be seen as ‘using personal resources’, classified under ‘moving towards clients’. Below, we show the nine ways of coping classified under the three coping families. This is based on a literature review from 1981-2014. It can be seen that – overall – the most often used family of coping is ‘moving towards clients’. However, we also see that many frontline workers move away from clients, often by routinizing their work or rationing their time for clients.

 

Coping family & Way of coping Description Number of fragments
Moving towards clients   120 (43%)
Rule bending Adjusting the rules to meet a client’s demands 37 (13%)
Rule breaking Neglecting or deliberately obstructing the rules to meet a client’s demands 22 (8%)
Instrumental action Executing long-lasting solutions to overcome stressful situations and meet client’s demands 22 (8%)
Prioritizing among clients Giving certain clients more time, resources or energy 20 (7%)
Use personal resources Using one’s own time, money, or energy to benefit the client 19 (7%)
Moving away from clients   104 (38%)
Routinizing Dealing with citizens in a standard way, making it a matter of routine 57 (21%)
Rationing Decreasing service availability, attractiveness or expectations to clients or client groups 47 (17%)
Moving against clients   53 (19%)
Rigid rule following Sticking to rules in an inflexible way that may go against the client’s demands 39 (14%)
Aggression Confronting clients in a hostile manner 14 (5%)
     
Total   277 (100%)

 

Future research suggestions

Based on the systematic literature review, we developed a future research agenda.

First, regarding the methodology, many studies on coping during public service delivery are single country qualitative case studies. Using a wider range of methods in public administration research (such as participant observations, surveys and experiments) can increase understanding. Scale development approaches are needed to measure the ways of coping. The developed classification of families and ways of coping can be used for scale development. The few quantitative studies found have tended to develop their own scales without following the guidelines of psychometric scale development. This hampers reliability and validity. Furthermore, the quantitative studies all draw on single surveys from a single source at a single point in time, thereby suffering from common-source bias. Future scholars are advised to take precautions to reduce common-source bias. They could for instance develop a multi-source study, where coping (independent variable) is measured via employees and performance (dependent variable) is measured via supervisor ratings. Finally, our review did not uncover any study that involved field or laboratory experiments. Experiments could be carried out to determine causal linkages.

Regarding new theoretical venues, future research can further analyze the antecedents of coping during public service delivery. Investigating the role of professionalism as noted in the literature on the sociology of professions or the role of servant leadership in organizational behavior  offers promise to ‘move beyond’ Lipsky. The work of Lipsky has been extremely valuable. However, focusing on one stream of literature can also have pitfalls, such as forming a barrier to insights. We can miss important connections that are extensively described in other streams of literature. Related to this, more research on coping during service delivery that gives attention to personal antecedents is needed. Ways of coping can be dependent on personality characteristics, such as self-efficacy and rule obedience. For instance, frontline workers scoring high on self-efficacy may be more often inclined to take instrumental action when dealing with stressful situations.

 

Funding

This work was supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme [FP7-People-2012-IOF-329519], entitled “Policy implementation in stressful times: Analyzing coping strategies of civil servants”. The project combines insights from psychology and public administration to study how frontline workers cope during public service delivery.For more information, you can visit www.larstummers.com/coping or email Tummers@fsw.eur.nl

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