Protecting emotional wellbeing when delivering difficult news

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

COVID-19 has disrupted our economy and placed an enormous financial strain on organizations of all sizes. Most are working hard to stay afloat and many others have already made the heartwrenching decision to shut their doors.

In a study done by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Conference Board of Canada, one of the key findings was that having stable employment is a key factor of mental health.[1] Understandably most employees are on tenterhooks about their future. Many, particularly those in the service sector, read daily about the precarious position their employers are in. Others watch with great uncertainty about where their organizations - or in some cases, entire industries - are headed.

We’ve talked often in this blog about employees turning to leaders to help them quell unprecedented levels of fear, stress and anxiety spurred by these realities. And while you want to lend this support and protect your employees and organization from the impact of the crisis, sometimes it’s just not possible.

Many leaders are watching revenue plummet and expenses climb, and if you’re one of them, you might be preparing to deliver difficult news to your employees such as the need to reduce staff levels, close locations, or worse - shutter the business completely.

Tips and Strategies for Delivering Bad News

Delivering news of this magnitude is difficult at the best of times. During a pandemic, it can be downright gut wrenching. If you’re the business owner, you’re faced with balancing your own emotions about the decision with delivering the news in a sensitive and empathetic manner. If you’ve been tasked with delivering hard news about a decision you didn’t make, it can be even more challenging to balance your personal feelings with the gravity of the task at hand.

Few of us have been trained on how to deliver bad news. However, these tips and strategies can help you feel more prepared.

  • Start with this four-point framework:
    • Facts - Deliver relevant facts to set context: “Because of COVID, our revenues have declined 27%.”
    • Impact - Share the consequences clearly and concisely: “Because of a drop in revenues, unfortunately, we need to cut your role, starting...”
    • Support - Outline available resources: “Human Resources has prepared this package to support you through this transition.”
    • Personal message - The final message is dependent on the quality of the relationship and level of trust between you and the employee. If strong, the message may be something like, “I’m sorry things have come to this. I’m happy to provide you a reference, if helpful.”
  • Accept that delivering bad news is hard - Any leader tasked with ending an employment relationship, or laying off a group of people, must accept that these conversations are extremely difficult. Even if it’s something that you have had to do previously, it’s not a task that becomes easier over time.
  • Be organized - Prepare and organize your thoughts. Get to the bad news quickly, concisely, and clearly. It’s not a time for circle-talk or dancing around to work up courage. Ensure the administrative aspects of the decision are taken care of before delivering the bad news, especially if you’re terminating or laying people off.
  • Take a people-first approach in your communications - Be empathetic to the person/people receiving the news. Recognize that they may be completely caught off guard and get lost in their own thoughts as they process the news you’re delivering. Be clear and speak with humility and compassion.
  • Accept that the recipient(s) of the news will be disappointed - It’s not your role to spin bad news in a positive manner as an attempt to avoid disappointment. The pain of job loss and business closings can’t be glossed over. Be mentally prepared and allow the other individual(s) privacy and space to process the news.
  • Consider the people who are still there - When you relay the information to remaining employees or others, respect privacy and recognize that those who are leaving are their colleagues, and sometimes friends. Be prepared that those left behind may struggle with feelings of loss or fear for their own job security.
  • Be as open and transparent as appropriate - You shouldn’t overwhelm with information or provide any details that aren’t appropriate. However, providing context when possible is compassionate and can help ease fear and grief.
  • Be timely and consistent - It is essential that you deliver news in timely fashion to minimize rumours and misinformation being spread. Also, prepare key messages and be consistent communicating them.
  • Provide support - Offer support to help employees cope if they feel overwhelmed. The levels of support can range from an employee and family assistance officer to an off-boarding consultant to help the employee transition to new work. Be clear about what is available and provide names and contact information for people who can answer specific questions. Having leaders trained in Mental Health First Aid may also prove valuable in supporting staff following bad news. Course participants learn to recognize signs of mental health problems and engage in supportive conversations to help address them.
  • Have supports ready for yourself - Consider the possibility that the employee(s) may act out and consider the level of risk to your safety. If it isn’t already a standard practice in your workplace, you may want to have an HR person, peer, or security person there to support you.

These situations are painful for everyone involved, but following these tips will help you approach critical conversations in a compassionate and psychologically safe manner. You may not always have control over the news you have to share, but you can control its delivery.


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