AIMS The aim of this study was to explore the difficulties experienced by nurses and healthcare professionals when engaging in the process of breaking bad news. BACKGROUND The challenges faced by staff when breaking bad news have previously been researched in relation to particular settings or participants. This study involved staff from diverse settings and roles to develop broader insights into the range of difficulties experienced in clinical practice. DESIGN The study used a descriptive survey design involving self-reported written accounts and framework analysis. METHODS Data were collected using a structured questionnaire containing a free text section that asked participants to describe a difficult experience they had encountered when involved in the process of breaking bad news. Data were collected from healthcare staff from hospital, community, hospice and care home settings attending training days on breaking bad news between April 2011 and April 2014. FINDINGS Multiple inter-related factors presented challenges to staff engaging in activities associated with breaking bad news. Traditional subjects such as diagnostic and treatment information were described but additional topics were identified such as the impact of illness and care at the end of life. A descriptive framework was developed that summarizes the factors that contribute to creating difficult experiences for staff when breaking bad news. CONCLUSION The framework provides insights into the scope of the challenges faced by staff when they engage in the process of breaking bad news. This provides the foundation for developing interventions to support staff that more closely matches their experiences in clinical practice.