In cases such as these, frontline workers are forced to choose between an option that is bad and one that may be even worse. They have to make such difficult decisions, moreover, in view of the very people who will suffer the consequences, and watch as disappointment and despair color their faces. The clients bold enough to vent their frustration might prefer to direct it at their elected representatives, but in that moment, the only person they can scold is the one in front of them: the bureaucrat.
How do workers cope with that? Some, understandably, cannot or will not take it. “It used to feel like we were doing something for clients,” a woman named Angela Neville said to The Guardian last year in explaining why she left her job as an employment service advisor in the UK. “Now it [was doing] something to them.”
Others stay, but become desensitized, turning the blame onto clients. “Some staff, they’re just so burnt out,” a colleague confided, “that they feel like people just make up stories to get things.”
Others learn to don a professional mask, which they then take off, with difficulty, at the end of the workday. Once I caught a glimpse of this myself: A caseworker I had never seen smiling suddenly brightened up, his face transformed beyond recognition. A relative had entered the office. That is when I realized he had been compartmentalizing all along.
Others still, the majority perhaps, seek out a delicate balance. They carefully guard their emotional exposure to clients for fear of depleting themselves entirely, saving themselves up for the cases that truly need their attention. “Sometimes,” a caseworker told me by way of introduction to the agency, “it’s good to engage yourself fully with clients, because they don’t get someone who can listen to them. … But in my role, I’ve learned to not get attached with a lot of folks.”
Seen through the eyes of clients, the result of these various coping strategies may, in most cases, look the same: an air of indifference. Yet this indifference is misleading, not only because it covers up multiple types of responses, but also because it often originates from the opposite inclination. Bureaucrats end up appearing indifferent not because they are uncaring, but as an adaptive response to the fact that they do, or at least at some point did, care.
The boundaries that bureaucrats erect are of course not impermeable, and sometimes the professional mask drops. I witnessed caseworkers lose their composure while listening to their clients’ harrowing tales. I also saw barriers break down when clients departed from traditional scripts by cracking a joke, asking a probing question, or demanding a justification. Occasionally, they may catch workers entirely off guard, like when a client in his mid-50s, sporting a colorful Peruvian poncho and a pillbox hat, rose up from his seat in the waiting room and asked me, without any apparent reason, “In school, did you read Hemingway?” To which I answered earnestly, “No, but we read Steinbeck.”