In the world of HR, the acronym ‘HR’ could easily stand for ‘Human Resilience.’ After all, it's the department responsible for nurturing the lifeline of an organisation – its people. It is also the function tasked with creating people employee strategies during the pandemic – maintaining a ‘Business as usual’ mindset under the most turbulent circumstances.
HR is not OK
The impact of this unprecedented challenge is now evident. A report by Workvivo revealed that a staggering 98% of HR personnel expressed feelings of burnout. The figures show that 88% of HR people admit to experiencing work-related dread, 97% report emotional fatigue stemming from their work and overall, 78% of HR professionals contemplate exploring new career prospects. These concerning statistics paint a picture of a profession at breaking point.
The irony is that HR has worked tirelessly to integrate wellbeing policies into the workplace to help employees achieve a much-needed work/life balance. A study by Gartner found that 71% of respondents reported that burnout among HR staff was more challenging than pre-pandemic with over half of the HR leaders surveyed reporting increased difficulty in both retaining and recruiting HR employees. What is contributing to this issue and how can people professionals recognise and avoid burnout?
The Paradox of HR Burnout
HR professionals tend to be the perpetual problem solvers whether it's mediating conflicts, implementing policies, or handling crises and this can undoubtedly contribute to workplace stress. However, the changing nature of the HR function can also result in a certain degree of scope-creep and contribute to feelings of overwhelm. The responsibilities covered within many HR roles have expanded considerably over the years, making it easy for professionals to take on more than they can cope with. Being hired, for example, in a recruitment role can quickly spill into employee engagement, talent development, and employee relations.
Fighting against the ‘Always on’ culture
In an age of smartphones and Slack notifications, the line between work and personal life has blurred and like everyone else, HR professionals often find themselves glued to their screens, answering emails and messages after hours, which is a recipe for burnout
This constant connectivity can be worse for digitally savvy Gen Z who find it harder to switch off. According to Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2021, one in six (16%) workers aged 18 to 24 said they check work emails on their smartphone every hour, compared to just 5% of workers aged 55 to 75.
The switch to remote working has made switching off even harder. Figures from The Royal Society for Public Health found that more than half (56%) of home workers struggle to switch off and two in five said this disrupted their sleep. This is an endemic problem across all industries. In fact, a survey by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) revealed that more than 5 million UK workers put in a total of 2 billion unpaid hours in 2019. Organisations need to be conscious that the push for productivity can take its toll on mental and physical health.
Similarly, empathy overload from dealing with people's problems day in and day out can lead to what's known as ‘compassion fatigue.’ The term, coined by experts in the human service industries, is now a common reference within HR and is often described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others who are in emotional or psychological pain. A report from Lattice found that burnout is still very much a prevalent issue for UK employees and managers, with HR being particularly susceptible.
Symptoms include feelings of detachment, hopelessness, emotional numbing, and general anxiety. From an employment perspective it can lead to a lack of motivation and focus, disconnection, and decreased productivity. This can also compound issues like increased alcohol and drug abuse, aggression, and risk-taking behaviour.
HR’s Hero Complex
It's clear that HR professionals are caught in a perfect storm of expectations and responsibilities. As a function that attracts individuals who are wired to help others, HR professionals are often the unsung heroes of the workplace and carry an ingrained belief that they must be there for everyone, no matter the cost to themselves.
Another element that can cause stress and burnout is the fear of change, especially within HR processes, which can be slow-moving in many organisations. Tradition and inertia often rule the day, making it hard to implement changes that could alleviate burnout, and this can cause immense frustration. According to the Workvivo report, 73% of respondents said that they lack the necessary tools and resources to excel in their roles. This can cause feelings of frustration which is the case for many understaffed and under-resourced HR departments. Trying to do more with less is a surefire way to perpetuate burnout.
This also applies to the ever-changing nature of HR Regulations, Compliance and Diversity initiatives which need to be kept on top of. This constant state of flux can be mentally taxing and lead to overwhelm. In addition, if the company culture doesn't prioritise employee wellbeing or discourages HR professionals from taking breaks, it becomes an uphill battle to address burnout effectively. This can include how mental health support is provided, and whether there is an open culture of conversation within the company. HR professionals may hesitate to admit they're struggling, fearing it might jeopardise their careers.
What can HR do about it?
The most effective thing that the people profession can do is to redefine the HR role.
Organisations need to reevaluate what they expect from their HR teams and providing clear role definitions, delegate tasks, and improve collaboration to distribute the workload more evenly. HR should be a strategic partner, not a catch-all for every workplace issue.
This shift in perspective can be supported by HR technology. Automating routine tasks like paperwork, data entry, and even initial candidate screenings can free up valuable time and mental space, reducing the risk of human error, which can be a significant source of stress for time-poor HR staff. This also includes being able to leverage data for insights - people data analytics is not just for employee management but also for HR management. Analysis of these metrics can be used to identify patterns of burnout and address them proactively.
One way that can certainly help reduce burnout before it becomes a problem is training. Many HR teams train other employees in essential coping skills but ensuring that they invest in the resilience of HR professionals themselves is a strategy that will ultimately serve the business well. Training programmes and resources focused on managing stress, setting boundaries, and fostering self-care can make a world of difference to beleaguered people professionals.
A culture shift to support wellbeing
It's time for organisations to put their money where their mission statements are place employee wellbeing at the top of the list. Managers and leaders can help model positive behaviours and encourage an open-door policy where employees can offer honest feedback and actively discuss any problems without worrying about the security of their jobs. This can be extended to a department-specific support network too, where HR professionals can share their experiences and challenges. Peer support groups or mentoring programmes can provide a lifeline for those struggling with burnout.
Advocating for mental health in the workplace is also instrumental in ensuring HR burnout is kept at bay. HR professionals are well-positioned to promote mental health provision within the organisation and can help reduce the stigma by being open about their own experiences and championing mental health initiatives.
Proving the business case for wellbeing
It is worth noting that being able to measure the ROI of any wellbeing strategy is paramount, particularly when arguing the case with decision makers. Collecting data to assess stress within the team includes collating behavioural indicators, such as absenteeism, turnover, productivity, quality, errors, conflicts, complaints, and feedback, offer valuable insights into how stress influences a team's overall performance and job satisfaction.
Physiological markers, including heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and sleep quality, provide valuable information about the impact of stress on people’s physical health and wellbeing. Furthermore, psychological data obtained through surveys, questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups can offer valuable insights into employees’ perception of and coping mechanisms for stress.
In the grand scheme of things, addressing HR burnout is not just about saving HR professionals from the brink; it's about safeguarding the heart and soul of an organisation. After all, a burnt-out HR department can't effectively nurture a thriving workforce. It's time for businesses to recognise the paradox and invest in the long-term wellbeing of their HR professionals.