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Strategies to cope with stressful situations in public service

The way in which some individuals cope with stressful situations can be radically different from others. A study analysed and classified these different behaviours.
Strategies to cope with stressful situations in public service
Dealing with stressful situations during public service delivery is not always easy for street-level bureaucrats. Police officers, social workers, teachers and physicians often face high workloads with few resources and limited time.

The EU-funded project COPING (Policy implementation in stressful times: Analyzing coping strategies of civil servants) studied the ways in which workers cope with stress and how this affects their clients, such as students, unemployed people and citizens. The topic of the study was named 'Coping during public service delivery'.

Researchers conducted a systematic review of over 30 years of literature, qualitative case studies and quantitative scale development in the Netherlands and the United States.

COPING made a theoretical, empirical and methodological contribution to this particular field of studies. It created a conceptual framework by defining the meaning of coping during public service delivery and developed a coherent classification system.

Based on public administration and psychological studies, the researchers defined the study as behavioural efforts used by street-level bureaucrats to master tolerate and reduce demands and conflicts, when working with clients.

From the definition and the systematic review of the literature, researchers categorised three main families of coping during public service delivery. The first copes by helping clients in stressful situations, the second copes by avoiding meaningful interaction with clients, and the last confronts clients during stressful situations.

The literature review and qualitative studies showed that most street-level bureaucrats move towards clients when confronted with stress. They often work overtime and bend rules to benefit the clients, which goes against the perceived ideas of the lazy bureaucrat.

Finally, the methodological contribution helped to develop a reliable and valid quantitative measurement instrument, useful for survey research. A measurement instrument was developed and tested among teachers and social workers, in both the Netherlands and the United States.

The COPING project was significant for its innovative approach. Theoretically, it contributed to the construction of a classification for coping, while it also used advanced qualitative techniques, a concept which was new to the policy implementation field.

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Life Sciences


Strategies, stressful situations, public service delivery, bureaucrats, COPING
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