Feeling Moral Stress? Here's How to Foster Resilience.

By Brett Beasley

Focus on realism, social connection, and self-compassion to keep moral stress at bay.



In a famous scene from Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey manages—just barely—to calm a room full of panicked investors. Seized by fear during a run on the banks, the investors want to withdraw all of their money at once from his Building & Loan association. Using cash he saved for his own honeymoon, Bailey bargains with his investors individually. He doles out just enough to satisfy each of them. And as the clock strikes 6:00pm, he closes the doors for the day—with just two dollars left over. But he feels triumphant, having just saved his Building & Loan from insolvency.

Even in the best of times, leaders can feel like George Bailey. They consider the needs of all of their stakeholders, from employees to suppliers to shareholders and the communities in which the business operates. Keeping all of their stakeholders' interests in mind, leaders work to satisfy and suffice (or “satisfice”) each of them and create shared value for everyone involved.

"When leaders care deeply and feel a strong sense of moral obligation to these stakeholders, this process can wear on them. A specific mental and emotional condition can result that researchers describe as 'moral stress.'"


But tough times bring added challenges. Leaders are stretched to the breaking point. One of the worst parts of the COVID-19 crisis according to many leaders is their inability to do all of the good, moral things they think they ought to do.

  • For their customers, they want to provide products and services to help them during this uncertain time.
  • For employees, they want to provide financial security and an opportunity to contribute.
  • For suppliers, they want to provide guarantees of stability.
  • For communities, they want to provide hope and a positive vision for the future.
  • For shareholders, owners, or other financiers, they want to continue to deliver fair returns on their investment.

However, at the same time, crises make leaders painfully aware that, unlike George Bailey, they will come up short. Instead of satisficing, many recognize they will end up disappointing some of their stakeholders at least some of the time. Especially when leaders care deeply and feel a strong sense of moral obligation to these stakeholders, this process can wear on them. A specific mental and emotional condition can result that researchers describe as "moral stress."

What is Moral Stress?

In 2012, researchers Scott Reynolds, Bradley Owens, and Alex Rubenstein identified moral stress and described its unique causes and consequences. They define “moral stress” as “a psychological state (both cognitive and emotional) marked by anxiety and unrest due to an individual’s uncertainty about his or her ability to fulfill relevant moral obligations.”

Moral stress, the researchers say, is often caused by right vs. right dilemmas. When a leader feels morally obligated to do much more than he or she can possibly achieve, moral stress is often the outcome. As Reynolds explains, “There are only 24 hours, we are only human. A manager can never fulfill all of the obligations they have. You end up coming up short. Somebody is going to be on the short end of the stick. The trick of management is learning how to manage the disappointment. Who can handle the disappointment better than others?” In times of crisis, moral stress can become especially widespread and deeply felt because leaders have fewer resources—personal and financial—to fulfill their obligations, and they also are exposed to the negative outcomes for their stakeholders in a more profound and heart-wrenching way.

The worst thing about moral stress is that it can be self-defeating. Instead of helping a leader fulfill his or her moral obligations, when it is left unchecked, it can do just the opposite by impairing moral reasoning and diminishing attention to morally relevant information.


Put it in Practice

Here's how you can foster the resilience you need to cope with and combat moral stress.

Practice Self-Compassion.

Reynolds and his colleagues discovered that "moral stress is an inherently personal experience.” People who are "morally attentive" (i.e. sensitive to moral concerns) are especially likely to be affected. So recognize that moral stress is a sign of something good about you: It shows that you care. Moral stress is different from guilt and shame in that it is not an indication that you did anything wrong. So if you are experiencing moral stress, remember that you are worthy of self-compassion (see below) and self-care. Like all forms of stress, moral stress can lead to depletion and exhaustion. Exercise, sleep, and mindfulness are all proven ways to help you cope with and manage the inevitable strain.


Be a realist.

Reynolds recommends combating moral stress by reassessing your mindset. He says that moral stress can often result from an idealist mindset. “Idealists think there are perfect answers," he says, "whereas realists think things happen and you do your best, idealists think if they can only work harder and faster and smarter they can make everyone happy. But realists know that the system is rigged against you; you can't make everyone happy. Releasing yourself from having to have a perfect solution can be very liberating."

As Tom Mendoza says, "There can't always be positive outcomes. But you can control what you put into it and how you address it." The point is not to give up caring. But you can care deeply while also understanding the difference between what you can change and what you cannot change and focusing your energies and concerns where you have the greatest scope for influence.

Build social connections—for yourself and your people.

When leaders are experiencing moral stress, they are confronted by the fact that there's just not enough—not enough time, enough energy, enough attention—to do all they would like to for the people who matter most. But that doesn't mean they are alone. They can foster social connection and help share the burden of their decisions by talking through them with other people.

Organizations can also help managers who are making tough decisions feel less alone by providing moral clarity and clear ethical standards for how to respond to the crisis. Doing so will remove much of the guess work and potentially stressful conflicts between personal values and organizational values.

In another sense, companies are in this together as well. As Deloitte US CEO Joe Ucuzoglu puts it, "there is a dialogue going on right now about the role of business in our society" (below). The Business Roundtable and others have called on companies to embrace a more stakeholder-driven mindset. The COVID-19 crisis is putting this perspective to the test and companies are learning from one another about how best to respond.

Reynolds points out that, at least for now, many companies seem to be passing the test. "People who were very bottom line oriented are looking at things differently," he says, "There is something about the coronavirus that has made them very employee-centric. They are worried about employees, and the sustainability of having people work in warehouses and make deliveries. The calculus is different. Owners and shareholders seem to be a little more forgiving right now." Organizational leaders can gain insight and inspiration from how other organizations are stepping up to serve their customers, employees, and suppliers to try and turn their commitments into reality when it matters most.

Leaders can take these insights to heart and develop self-compassion, social connection, and a realist mindset. And they pay the benefits forward by encouraging all of their followers to do the same.


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