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.”