This paper contributes to a deeper understanding of front-line service workers’ experience of the worker–client relationship. It is based on a series of in-depth interviews with non-professionally affiliated workers in new front-line roles in UK mental health services. The findings cover three main areas: worker motivation and orientation; the nature of the worker–client relationship; and the role played in the relationship by the structure of work and relationships with colleagues. Evidence is found to support the use of the framework of Korczynski (Sociology, 43, 2009), but the research also suggests ways in which each of the framework's elements might be developed. It is argued that the idea of ‘caring’ is in need of refinement; that worker–client relations should not be seen solely in terms of client sovereignty and that a focus on the technical organisation of work can only go some way towards providing an understanding of the worker experience.