What It's Like to Deliver Bad News for a Living

For management consultants, oncologists, first responders, and others who have to do it, the task can exact a heavy emotional toll.
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Wong Maye-E/AP

“I felt like the Grim Reaper,” said Brenda Christensen, recalling her role in the layoffs of thousands of employees from fallen computer giant Wang Laboratories back in the 1980s. At first her job had entailed awarding vacations and prizes to top sales performers. But on the verge of filing for bankruptcy protection, the company promoted her to inventorying assets in district offices (down to the pencils and staplers)—a sure harbinger of pink slips.

“I went from Santa to Satan overnight,” she told me. “People knew why I was there. I was so feared and hated that some people literally ran out of their offices.”

Receiving bad news is never one of life’s delights. But how is it for those whose job it is to deliver the bad news? How do they—consultants, oncologists, first responders, even wedding planners—survive doling out the rough stuff day after day?

“You would think it would get easier after the first 10 or 20 times, but it never really does,” said Alan Pennington, a St. Louis-based consultant and former human resources manager who’s had to lay off scores of employees via painful individual meetings. “The guilt comes with: ‘All of these lives are being changed and I have no ability to fix it for them.’”

While it’s tempting to imagine agents of bad news as heartless Mr. Burns types, rubbing their palms together and cackling in Machiavellian glee as they spread doom, reality is far less satisfying (unless you’re into Schadenfreude.) According to research, delivering grim news can sometimes be as painful as receiving it.

A 2006 study of Boeing managers published in Human Resource Management, as well as a follow-up study published in 2009, found those managers tasked with implementing some of the company’s 40,000 layoffs experienced a battery physical and emotional troubles.

Their symptoms included ulcers, headaches, heart problems, increased blood pressure, disturbed sleep, social isolation and emotional exhaustion—a classic measure of burnout. Notably, many of those ill effects lingered, even three years after they’d delivered layoff notices.

“You don’t think of managers as suffering—you don’t think of an executioner having sympathy—but they’re humans and they’re in a role conflict situation,” said Leon Grunberg, the studies’ lead author and a professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. “Several described the experience as ‘gut-wrenching’ or ‘the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done.’”

Of course, it's not just layoffs that are hard to reckon with. Another study of more than 700 oncologists, presented by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2006, found 47 percent expressed negative emotions while breaking bad news to terminally ill patients, including feelings of depression, guilt, anxiety, stress, and emotional exhaustion. Additional research, including a 2013 study of 3,000 oncologists, shows increased burnout rates and cortisol levels, as well as immune system changes, in doctors delivering bad news.

“It takes a tremendous toll,” said Walter F. Baile, a professor of behavioral science and psychology at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center who trains oncologists around the world in delivering bad news.

“No one wants to inflict what they think might be psychological harm on another person,” he continued. “When patients get angry or tearful or blaming, it triggers the doctor’s own emotions. So in trying to reassure the patient, they’ll inadvertently say, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine!’ And that will get the doctor into hot water.”

Paradoxically, those who directly embrace the grief and pain of their dire duties, instead of shying from them, often report a more expansive and buoyant outlook. 

“I wouldn’t have seen the intensity of the colors of life if I hadn’t been a part of this,” said Denny Hayes, a human services director for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse, N.Y., who has personally delivered more than 500 death notifications. “It’s been a rich experience—rich can be sad. Meeting someone in the midst of a traumatic situation is like cutting a tree in half and looking at the rings and the growth—you see the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Hayes previously worked as a chaplain for the FBI’s critical response team for 15 years, dispatched to airline crashes and terrorist attacks to inform and counsel victims’ families. During that time, he developed a code for his ominous duties: Always deliver bad news in person. Always bring a partner (“95 percent of them defer to me to do the actual speaking of the words—nobody wants to experience sad”). Skip the euphemisms—they comfort no one except the person speaking them. Never abandon anyone until they have someone else to hold onto.  

“You enter the arena of suffering with people,” he explained. To this day, some of the strangers he’s met while notifying them of the death of a child mail him Christmas cards.

Yet as seasoned as he is in ferrying tragic news, a few encounters still haunt him. “When you hear a mother howl—it’s a primal scream that you’ll never hear in the movies, you’ll never hear it anywhere else, except from a mother who lost her child,” he reflected. “Nothing can prepare you for that.”

To cope with life on the front lines of despair, Hayes said he initially “adjusted” with alcohol (he’s now 18 years sober). These days, he turns to daily swims and conversations with professionals. And if he had a chance to do it all over again, he says he’d choose the same career.

Still, he noted with a deep chuckle, “I don’t see people running to the door to do this full time.”  

Indeed, sowing sad tidings has some folks running for the woods—literally, in the case of Aaron McManus. After years of assisting with mass layoffs as a Los Angeles-based HR consultant, he felt so crushed by cynicism that he quit in 2013 and fled for the Alaskan wilderness to work with troubled youth.

McManus has since launched his own emotional intelligence consulting agency called e.i. growth, where he teaches clients the set of “ninja skills” and “calm detachment” he cultivated from years of scripting bad news. McManus, like everyone interviewed for this article, pointed to rehearsal as the most critical skill for emissaries of bad news.

As Christensen, the former “Grim Reaper” who now delivers straight talk to the C-suite as a communications director for high-tech startups, put it: “Once it’s done, I can sleep at night. It’s the nights before—when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to broach the news—that keep me awake.”

Even world leaders need practice, said Daniel L. Shapiro, director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, who uses role-reversal scenarios while coaching diplomats in the art of conveying bad news.

“It’s a very simple and very powerful exercise—how do you feel from the other side’s perspective when those words are coming at you?” he said. “Whether you’re conveying bad news to your employee or to [president Hassan] Rouhani in Iran or to the Israelis and the Palestinians, there are a lot of human emotional elements involved. And if you fail to do it well—watch out.”

Experts who’ve studied the effects of bad news stress that a bungled, insensitive delivery can multiply its misery.

“You can’t make it better,” said Dr. Nancy Davis, former chief of counseling services for the FBI. “But you can definitely make it worse.”

The dread of that responsibility was part of the reason Sandy Malone left her public affairs career in Washington, D.C., to launch a destination wedding business in Vieques, Puerto Rico, eight years ago. She thought she'd left the bad-news trade behind. 

“The worst news I expected to deliver as a wedding planner was about roses in the wrong shade of pink,” she said. But she realized quickly that beyond fondant and buttercream dilemmas, her new job would require informing brides when tragedy struck, for example, notifying a bride last month when her father passed away the night before the wedding.

Other catastrophes she’s gingerly divulged to clients include reception venues collapsing days before the ceremony, a medevac whisking away a mother-of-the-bride with bleeding ulcers, and a guest fresh out of rehab absconding with a week’s dose of methadone and a bridesmaid’s dress.

Her clients’ reactions to those dilemmas have ranged from eerie calm to “absolute hysteria”—with Malone playing emotional sponge.

“Giving a bride bad news is the worst feeling in the world,” she said. “It takes you to a bad place, mentally and emotionally, but you have to smile and make another bouquet and bottle it all up.”

Her strategy for delivering disappointing news? If at all possible, offer a solution that’s better than the original.

“And,” she laughed, “make sure you have Xanax in your purse.”

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Carrie Seim has contributed to The New York Times, NPR’s “Unfictional,” McSweeney’s, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Post, Fodor’s Travel and The Huffington Post. An alum of The Groundlings, her “Outsourcing Love” essay was recently optioned as a feature film and she appeared on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” 

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