HR professionals have been dealing with burnout for 30 years.
Think about what has changed in 30 years. 30 years ago, we didn’t have the Internet. We were writing on typewriters called “word processors” and thinking it could save a few lines of text.
And do you know what else we were doing? Getting burned out as HR professionals. Here are some of the things that were stressors for HR then:
- senior management’s inability to see the importance of HR
- a lack of appreciation for the professional expertise of personnel managers
- the pressure created by HR executives’ unique position between top management and the work force
- poor communication channels, and
- lack of opportunities for professional advancement.
Still sound familiar? Most likely it does because many are still a factor today.
Now, here are some other straining factors for HR professionals:
- Responsibility of executing through others: Solid HR work is rarely fully delivered or experienced through the HR person him- or herself. For programs, culture, coaching needs, and the millions of micro-decisions that impact the employee experience, the direct manager is often (or should be) the one communicating to the employee, addressing questions, or supporting the day-to-day needs of their team. Being dependent on others to deliver as expected, without the dreaded “HR told me we had to do it,” can be a leap of faith. And managing the employee whose manager blames the HR team for company policies, cutbacks, etc., can be emotionally exhausting. In fact, one study showed that “scapegoating” doubled hostile behaviors toward the person blamed.
- Having clear roles within the team: In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) world, agility and flexibility are critical. However, this needs to be balanced with clarity of purpose and goals of the work. When each day is completely different, success becomes difficult to define. As one study demonstrated, role clarity improves competence, autonomy, vitality at work, and relatedness to others. This last bit is interesting; we are better able to work with others when our own roles and expectations are clear. The HR function is increasingly complex and rapidly evolving. Managing employee vaccinations, as an example, and vaccine policies, was nowhere on the priority list in February 2020. When something isn’t clear and has to do with people, it often comes to HR for a solution, creating further role confusion and stress.
- Serving as a “toxin handler” for the organization: “Toxin Handler” is sometimes apropos for HR. Peter Frost, author of Toxic Emotions at Work, defines toxin handling as those who “voluntarily shoulders the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger that are endemic to organizational life.” Isn’t this the role that many HR teams take on, as well? A 2021 study of HR managers in Turkey, in fact, showed that 80% of the studied population demonstrated traits of toxin handlers: “While effectiveness of HR department and managers is crucial for managing toxins within the company, provision of a proper environment for these toxin handlers is an absolute necessity to maintain their health and quality of life and further allow them to release their absorbed negative emotions at work.”
- Inherent loneliness of the position: HR can be a lonely role. Personally, one of my first mentors commented to me once as we headed out to lunch how unusual it was for her to have a friend at work. She had been in her position for 15 years. That’s 15 years of feeling like you couldn’t have a friend, had no one to confide in, no one to turn to when you feel down. According to the CDC, loneliness increases risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%. So addressing the loneliness of HR teams is critical to their health.
- Growing complexity of the HR function: The complexity of HR seems to double every year. While we previously went through an HR transformation, we are now experiencing an HR disruption. The Paychex Pulse of HR Report revealed that 70% of the 1,000 HR professionals they surveyed believed last year was the most challenging year of their careers, while 98% shared that the role of HR had fundamentally changed. Technological advances, historically-stunning talent departures, social unrest and division, climate pressures, the list goes on. The HR function now has to be a blend of IT (HRIS), Finance (Payroll/Pay for performance), Legal (HR laws and employee relations), Marketing (employment branding), Sales (recruiting), PR (internal communications), Product Development (program and benefit offerings) and Leadership (coaching, etc).
All of these elements have been scientifically proven to increase the risk of burnout, compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion. But there are a few things we can do to counter them, such as:
- Ensure the HR function has a seat at the executive table (not tucked under a different function or with the only non-C-Suite role). This might not be something you can change where you are now, but if you are considering making a move, looking at the impact and influence of the HR function can provide insight into how empowered the team will be to make decisions in the future.
- Take the time to clarify roles on the team. This may seem like a clerical waste of time, but it doesn’t have to be. Setting up an Objectives and Key Results (OKR) process, as an example, or a quarterly check in on progress can be a good step. So can sitting down and speaking, manager to employee, to share perspectives about what good looks like.
- Teach HR professionals coping strategies for managing emotional strain. Offer programs that can help people identify how stress shows up for them and proven tactics for managing these thoughts and feelings. Often, we tell people they should behave a certain way; find a program that teaches the team how to do it.
- Find outside or internal groups to connect with. Lots of groups popped up during the pandemic. If you like Slack, there are groups there. LinkedIn, Facebook, even Reddit have groups that can provide support for the HR professional in need of advice.
- Stay apprised of what’s changing by reading up on industry sites.
Many started our roles in HR because they love helping people. If you find you aren’t getting joy from the work any longer, it’s time to pause and reflect on ways in which you may be neglecting your needs.