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

Carrie Seim in The Atlantic:

Badnews“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?

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.

…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.”

More here.