When part of your job is *not* caring

by @edent | # # # | 7 comments | Read ~722 times.

Many years ago, when I worked at Vodafone, we had a senior network engineer give us a talk about keeping the network stable in the hours after the 7/7 bombings.

He was completely dispassionate. He spoke about analysing network traffic, predicting demand spikes, routing around damage, physically securing sites, supporting the emergency services - and all the minutiae that goes in to running a complex system during an emergency.

He then explained that his wife worked in Central London and his children were in school there.

He had friends and relatives who were probably in the vicinity of the attacks.

Obviously, the sheer human pain of the situation was evident.

And his job was not to care. Being able to keep the network running relied on him and his team not caring about the humanity of the situation.

The team executed their plan perfectly. They looked coolly at the numbers. Took a pragmatic approach to their responses. And tried really hard not to think about what was happening outside their management centre.

And at the end of the day, once the network was stable, he went home and cried.


I've no idea whether paramedics feel the same way when trying to save the life of a person. If a firefighter cutting a human out of twisted wreckage disassociates the actions they're taking from the life in front of them.

I feel a little weird when I see people in the news talk about "excess mortality". It's such a... clinical phrase. Each one of those in the "excess" column was a person.

And, sometimes, my work involves making choices which could involve large numbers of people. I simply cannot think about them as individuals. No one's brain has room to contemplate the pain and joy and heartbreak and elation of so many people. It is unfair of me to care about any one person more than another.

I react to the information I have in front of me. I'm not the philosopher Jeremy Bentham engaging in a felicific calculus exercise - I'm trying to stay calm. To not get overwhelmed so that I can continue operating effectively.

Part of my job is not caring.

And then I go stay home and feel like crying.

7 thoughts on “When part of your job is *not* caring

  1. Caring so much that you have to not care - a personal reflection by @edent which will resonate with many (and a brief reflection on his reflection at strategicreading.uk/2020/05/when-p… )

  2. Reminds me very much of my experience working in a live TV newsroom on Sept 11. My job was to tell people what was happening. But I didn't really register what was happening, personally, until about 4 hours in, when my wife phoned me, and broke my flow.

  3. This is a fine, honest and brave piece of writing. Thank you @edent

  4. Yes. I didn't work in disaster response for long but this is true all the way down to the ground.

  5. dwm says:

    I trained to be a first-aid medic. I worried that I would lack the temperament to do the job well, as I tend to feel the emotions of others intensely. I feared this would overwhelm my ability to respond effectively in a real crisis.

    My experience has been that it doesn’t. My training kicks in and I switch into what I can only describe as a responding mode: operating at an intellectual, not an emotional, level to calmly and methodically identify and prioritise issues, determine the best approaches, and to make them happen. It turns out I’m quite good at it.

    The full emotional payload hits afterwards. Talking through events with a trusted person helps.

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