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The Costs of Disservice and Disregard

How distress and disrespect can have psychological and physical consequences.

Key points

  • Daily hassles can create considerable stress and predict anxiety and depression.
  • Daily hassles are often the result of indifference and incompetence.
  • People without power often suffer the most from disrespect and disregard.

In the movie I, Daniel Blake, the main protagonist suffers a heart attack. Doctors forbid him to return to his carpentry job and he is required to go on welfare. Although the movie takes place in England and shows the impersonal treatment he gets from British officials, the story could be set anywhere people come into contact with bureaucracies.

Daniel applied for certain benefits and was rejected. During the movie he struggles with helplessness and hopelessness as he tries, in vain, to get a hearing with the “decision maker” to appeal the judgment. It is painful to watch how Daniel becomes depressed over the lack of control over his life. Bureaucrats ignore doctors’ orders, forcing him to look for jobs when he is not physically ready, and demean him time and again. Daniel sells most of his possessions to get by while waiting for financial support from the authorities.

Eventually, Daniel gets a hearing, and a lawyer guarantees that he will win the case. However, Daniel gets a second heart attack and dies just before he walks into the appeal. The outcome is terribly unfortunate, but not unpredictable. People often get sicker and more depressed in response to uncontrollable environments. Helplessness ensues when people are confronted with unmanageable events. If you are trying to change a situation, but no matter what you do nothing changes, you are likely to feel despondent and helpless. The costs, however, are not just psychological, but physical as well, as Daniel’s story illustrates only too well.

Missing Mail

Disregard by the state is not uncommon. Frequently, the perpetrator is not a single individual but a series of employees working for the same organization. Last December, my wife and I were supposed to spend six months in Australia. A week before our scheduled departure, I went to our local post office to complete a change of address.

Knowing that it would take a few days for the postal service to process the form, I submitted it a full week prior to our departure. However, much to our chagrin, two days after completing P.S. Form 3575—the COA—our long-awaited trip to Australia had to be canceled. A risky cocktail of health complications, the omicron spike, and airline dysfunction led to the difficult decision to call it off.

Long story short, it took me almost five months, multiple trips to multiple branches of the post office, several online requests, and innumerable phone calls to USPS to cancel the COA and finally get my mail sent back to our permanent address in Miami. I had to deal with over a dozen postal workers. In numerous occasions, I was told that the problem had been fixed and that I had nothing to worry about. I wish!

Welcome to the DMV

Stories of government incompetence abound. When we moved from Australia to Nashville, TN, to work at Vanderbilt, my wife and I had to take a driving test. After waiting for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), when our turn came the clerk at the counter announced that due to inclement weather our exam was cancelled. We would have to return another day. When my wife and I looked outside we could barely see any drops or wind. Explanations of the inconvenience involved in having to miss work again were summarily dismissed. Implorations went unheeded.

Good Luck with Reimbursements

But the public sector is hardly the only culprit of customer disregard. Our bank charged us a penalty of $6,000, claiming that we failed to pay house insurance, even though I had flooded the bank and their representatives with proof we had. Another time, our cable provider failed to reimburse us about $400 for returned equipment, even though I had submitted proof of doing so multiple times.

Lack of Control

You must have also experienced the torment created by inept people who fail to follow up on tasks. What is common in all these hassles is that the victim feels out of control. That is the main source of helplessness, depression, and anxiety operating in these types of daily hassles. You are doing all the right things, but the people with the power—the DMV clerk, USPS staff, or bank representatives—are doing all the wrong things. Indeed, the lack of fairness compounds the anger and frustration.

Lack of Fairness

When you deal with an organization, there is an implicit contract that if you do your part (provide a doctor’s note, pay house insurance, return equipment, fill out appropriate forms, pay for internet service) the system will do its part (reimburse you for returned equipment, cancel your mail forwarding, pay your welfare benefits due to sickness, and help you restore internet in a timely fashion). The violation of an agreement, combined with your lack of power to remedy the situation, results in anger.

Robbin Higgins/Pixabay
Frustration leads to aggression, especially when our worth is diminished
Source: Robbin Higgins/Pixabay

Effects of Daily Hassles

A recent study showed that daily hassles had a negative effect on life satisfaction. Another longitudinal study of daily hassles and mental health found that hassles correlated with psychological problems. Other investigations have demonstrated a correlation between hassles and depression, anxiety, and lower physical wellness. In other words, the perpetrators of inconvenience are causing real damage to people’s well-being. These aggravations are not a victimless crime. Over time, they result in a lack of control, anger, diminished well-being, helplessness, and depression.

Ways of Coping

Research demonstrates that forms of direct coping, such as problem-solving and proactive action, have a moderating effect on the negative outcomes of hassles. In other words, the more active you are in trying to deal with the problem, as opposed to suppressing the unpleasant reality, the better off you will be.

Investigators have also found that a sense of coherence, social support, and gratitude serve as protective factors against daily hassles. An interventional study found that biofeedback is effective in the management of daily hassles. Even five minutes a day of biofeedback training, combining heart rate and cerebral blood flow control, was useful in dealing with stress, researchers found. Along similar lines, mindfulness has been found to be beneficial in dealing with situations where we have little control over the stressor.


Dismissive behavior, disregard, and disrespect cause great distress. During my post office travails, my mind was preoccupied, I was extremely frustrated, and I was unable to fully concentrate on other matters. Delia Ephron, in a famous op-ed for the New York Times, recounted how she almost had a nervous breakdown while dealing with Verizon. It is easy for workers at the post office, Verizon, or the DMV to hide behind a bureaucracy, but their incompetence has a big price: It is not only lost productivity and preoccupation, but potentially serious mental and physical problems as well. Although none of us is immune to dysfunction and ineptitude, it is usually folks with less power, like Daniel Blake, who suffer most from ignominious treatment.

Accountability for callous treatment lies with both the individual and the system. Workplaces must demand, and leaders must model, excellence and accountability. Workers must feel valued and have an opportunity to add value: to themselves, the organization, customers, and the community. When leaders fail to make staff feel valued, the latter are less likely to add value, to the organization or to customers. There is no excuse for staff to treat customers with disdain, but there is no excuse for failed leadership either.


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