7 stressors, coping mechanisms for emotionally draining work

Healthcare providers' jobs can be incredibly rewarding, but also draining — both physically and emotionally. Dealing with sickness and debilitating injuries, telling patients to put their affairs in order because they have a terminal illness, informing a patient's loved ones he or she has died — all of these are "necessary evils" that make working in healthcare so taxing.  

In a recent study published in the Journal of Management Inquiry, authors Judy Clair, PhD, associate professor of management and organization at Boston College; Jamie L. Ladge, PhD, associate professor of management and organizational development at Boston-based Northeastern University; and Richard D. Cotton, PhD, assistant professor of management at University of Victoria in Canada, explored how these necessary evils affect those doing the work. The researchers detailed their findings in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

In the study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 21 human resources professionals who led layoffs on behalf of their organizations. Each HR professional reported having laid off 20 to 250 individuals. They had helped decide who to let go and discussed the layoffs with the effected employees, according to the report. Such actions and conversations evoked sadness and distress among the HR workers, who had helped hire and onboard these same employees.

The researchers concluded there are seven factors that cause suffering:

  1. Being obligated to inflict harm upon others that feels undeserved or unjustified
  2. Feeling certain necessary evils opposed other work responsibilities, beliefs or values
  3. Feeling stigmatized by others
  4. Feeling personally responsible for negatively affecting others' lives
  5. Observing others' pain and suffering
  6. Feeling there is no option other than harming others
  7. Not having enough time to recover in between delivering necessary evils

The majority of people in the study developed coping mechanisms for alleviating their own distress, such as looking for ways to minimize others' pain, spending extra time with someone who was particularly distressed and taking additional measures to protect peoples' privacy, even though this wasn't required.

Ultimately, the researchers found that instead of being distant or detached, those who could mitigate the negative effects of their difficult work most effectively were closely engaged with the hurt parties. Showing compassion and empathy helped relieve the HR professionals' own sadness.

More articles on leadership and management:
The corner office: Dr. Susan Ehrlich on bridging clinical, executive and health policy leadership
What position is most important when hiring in healthcare?
Is there such thing as too much employee engagement?

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