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.  

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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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