How to cope with an emotionally taxing job

Workers who are regularly exposed to others' suffering can become more resilient over time

Many jobs require carrying out some emotionally grueling tasks, but over time, people develop coping mechanisms to get through the worst parts, according to a new study published in the Journal of Management Inquiry.

Judy Clair of the University of Southern California, Jamie Ladge of Northeastern University, and Richard Cotton of the University of Victoria sought to determine the effect that carrying out "necessary evils" such as giving bad news or laying people off had on the executors.

Researchers interviewed 21 HR professionals who had laid off between 20 and more than 250 individuals on behalf of their organizations. The researchers expected the participants to feel some discomfort about their actions, but several participants were particularly torn up—a few even cried during their interviews.

Researchers identified seven main stressors that led to distress:

  • Inflicting harm upon others that seemed unnecessary or unjustifiable;
  • Feeling that necessary evils were in opposition with other work obligations, beliefs, or values;
  • Feeling stigmatized by others;
  • Feeling personal responsibility for hurting people;
  • Repeatedly being subjected to other people's misery;
  • Feeling unable to escape work that brought harm to others; and
  • Not having enough recovery time between difficult tasks.

While some participants complained of exhaustion and burnout, most had adopted coping mechanisms to deal with laying people off. The participants even sought ways to reduce the suffering of those they had laid off, such as spending more time with those in the most distress and helping people pack up their belongings.

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According to the authors, these findings contradict prior research led by Clair, which found that most participants dealt with the anguish of necessary evils by withdrawing physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Some people would hide from colleagues who were being laid off, while others would rationalize their actions to cope. But in the original study, participants did not carry out these necessary evils repeatedly. Those who had learned coping mechanisms did so over an extended period of time. And that should be encouraging to workers who must carry out emotionally taxing assignments. 

"These different coping strategies—engaging or withdrawing—should remind us that stress is neither predetermined nor totally out of our control. People can prevent, reduce, and cope with stress through their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors," the authors write.

Compared with those who coped through avoidance, those who engaged with the people they had hurt became more resilient over time.

According to the authors, the findings suggest that offering instruction on helping people when carrying out necessarily evils could benefit both parties.

"Professionals who must carry out difficult tasks can offset their own personal distress by engaging and focusing on the part of their job that means helping others, reducing the trauma being inflicted and reinforcing their own sense of meaning, self-worth, and belief that they play an important organizational role by carrying out necessary evils," they write.

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Further, they note, workplaces should help employees understand how they can help themselves and others when carrying out necessary evils. And workers who are regularly exposed to others' pain and suffering must also make time to care for their own physical and emotional health (Clair, et al., Harvard Business Review, 8/16).

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