The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently carried out research into how businesses can help managers psychologically navigate challenging tasks that require making tough decisions without succumbing to burnout.

Burnout happens when an employee continuously performs tasks that cause emotional, material or physical harm to another person (also known as ‘necessary evils’). Disciplining others or delivering bad news are examples of necessary evils. It requires an employee to be focused and self-controlled, which at times can cause significant stress and impaired task performance.

So, how do we avoid burning out when tough decisions need to be made?

The CIPD present a framework on how managers psychologically navigate a necessary evil and offer practical advice on how businesses can help. This framework is based on their interviews with 98 managers from transport, insurance, high tech, security and consumer goods industries, and also doctors, police officers and counsellors.

Managing Psychological Experience Across Phases of a Necessary Evil 

How Managers Can Psychologically Navigate a Necessary Evil

Stress could come from performing a challenging task (competence challenge) or where their behaviour in the task conflicts with their sense of who they are as a person (character challenge).

The researchers found managers used different coping strategies before, during and after performing a necessary evil task.

To prepare for the task, they memorised or practised scripts (words or behavioural steps) to reduce the stress of having to improvise what to say or do. They used props to enable them to perform the task more easily, like having a box of tissues handy before doing a redundancy consultation. They rationalised the purpose of the task to make it more palatable, for example, by hoping that it’s for the greater good.

During the task, they focused their attention on the tasks most pressing demands and suppressed unwanted thoughts and feelings. They also affirmed or reminded themselves that they’re doing the right thing.

After the task, they engaged in compensatory acts, seeking reassurance or emotional release to help them restore their competence and character. A medical student reconnecting with a patient after performing a painful procedure is an example of a compensatory act to restore her self-identity as a caring person. Talking with colleagues and seeking their reassurance helps confirm that she did a good job. For an addiction counsellor, crying “like a baby” helped restore himself after he worked hard to mask his anger and sadness for expelling a client from a programme for violating rules.

How Businesses Can Help Avoid Burnout

At Hallidays HR, we are an advocate for setting employees up to succeed and as the saying goes ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’

So, what can you do to support your team:

  • Provide training to help managers prepare. At Hallidays HR, our line manager training provides the what, why and how, with engaging learning to enhance new or existing management skills.
  • Have more than one manager performing the same task. New managers could be paired with experienced managers to help explain the complex area of a task and mentor the new manager.
  • Schedule time to allow managers to rest and recover before the task. For example, taking a short break or doing other tasks immediately after.
  • Supply the tools and staging to facilitate task performance. In a redundancy situation, this might mean providing water, a box of tissues and private meeting rooms away from busy areas.
  • Help managers recover after the task. For example, schedule debriefing conversations with their own manager.

Successful emotion regulation involves minimising but not eliminating the emotion, so that managers remember the harmful consequences of their actions (albeit for a greater good). Through training and coaching conversations, businesses can help managers appreciate the complexity of necessary evils and understand what success looks like on multiple dimensions.

How Hallidays HR can help

If you would like to discuss any of the above in more detail, then please do not hesitate to contact us on 0161 476 8276 or email hr@hallidayshr.co.uk. And of course, visit our LinkedIn page: Hallidays HR LinkedIn