How do public professionals cope with stress?

Police officers, social workers, teachers and physicians often face high workloads while having few resources and limited time per client. Therefore, they often face severe stress. The goal of this Marie Curie project was to understand how these workers cope with this stress, and how this affects their clients (which are for instance students, unemployed people or citizens).

To achieve this goal, we have conducted various studies. These include:

  1. A systematic review of over 30 years of the literature.
  2. Conceptual analyses on coping and moral conflicts.
  3. Qualitative and quantitative studies in the United States and the Netherlands.

In the policy brief, I summarize our results so far.  I focus on three contributions we hope to make to the literature:

  1. A theoretical contribution: we defined coping during public service delivery and developed a coherent classification (see Tummers, Bekkers, Vink & Musheno, 2015).
  2. An empirical contribution: we show that public professionals often behave in ways that are beneficial for clients, even in difficult circumstances. This goes against the stereotype of the lazy bureaucrat who wants to make his work as easy as possible (see Tummers & Rocco, 2015).
  3. A methodological contribution: we developed a measurement instrument for different coping behaviors that researchers can use when conducting surveys (see Tummers & Musheno, 2015).

Read the policy brief, entitled “Street-level bureaucrats help clients, even in difficult circumstances” here.

Stress of teachers, coping

Teacher stress







Conclusion: Three Policy recommendations

Based on the results of this project, we have developed three policy recommendations:

1. We found that street-level bureaucrats (also termed public professionals or frontline workers) often behave in ways that are good for clients. This even happens when circumstances are difficult. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Teachers are findings innovative ways to help student when budgets are low. Social workers bend rules to help clients. Frontline workers implementing the Affordable Care Act work 18-hour shifts. In this way, they can help citizens sign up for health insurance. These findings go against the stereotype of the lazy bureaucrat who wants to make his work very easy. Hence, street-level bureaucrats can play a vital role in successfully delivering public services. Contracting out to private workers may not always be the best option.

2. Street-level bureaucrats often continue to help clients when faced with limited money and time. However, we also found that as a result they can experience high workload. Some street-level bureaucrats burned out. Therefore, governments should pay particular attention to the challenges that street-level bureaucrats face in their daily work and try to address these challenges. 

3. We have developed a conceptualization and measurement instrument of coping during public service delivery. This was done via a combination of public administration and psychological research. Scholars, policy makers, managers and professionals can use the conceptualization and measurement instrument to study ‘what happens on the frontline’. They can analyze whether implementation is going according to plan. They can also check whether the implementers are not collapsing under the heavy burdens from the state, the clients and their own professional values and norms.

Teacher working longer to deal with stress

Working overtime to cope with high workload



Concluding, we show that street-level bureaucrats help clients, even under conditions of high stress.

McCarty, S. (2015). Commentary: Frontline Assisters Prove Federal Navigator Grants to Be Good Public Policy. Public Administration Review. DOI: 10.1111/puar.12421

Tummers, L.G., Bekkers, V.J.J.M., Vink, E., Musheno, M. (2015) Coping during public service delivery: A conceptualization and systematic review of the literature. Journal of Public Administration, Research and Theory. DOI: 10.1093/jopart/muu056

Tummers, L.G., & Rocco, P. (2015). Serving Clients When the Server Crashes: How Frontline Workers Cope with E‐Government Challenges. Public Administration Review. DOI: 10.1111/puar.12379

Tummers, L.G., & Musheno, M. (2015). Coping during public service delivery: Developing a measurement instrument for survey research. Public Management Research Conference (Minneapolis, June 11-13).





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