How to prevent HR burnout during a crisis (and in general)

In 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases, defining the condition as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Designating the issue as a genuine public health problem is significant, though anyone who’s been in HR for some time is well aware of burnout’s dangers. 

However, it’s one thing to understand an issue affecting someone else and quite another to recognize it in yourself. Team leaders and staff are just as susceptible to HR burnout as people in other areas of the company are vulnerable to their own version of the phenomenon. The ongoing difficulties in people’s personal, professional and cultural lives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have only made HR departments that much more susceptible to this kind of fatigue. It’ll be critical for every HR manager and team member to keep a close eye on one another – while still continually addressing personnel operations across the business – so that HR burnout is nipped in the bud before it goes too far. 

What are the signs of burnout at work?

According to the WHO, “[burnout] is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” In short: fatigue, disengagement and lower productivity. These signs don’t always present themselves simultaneously, of course: Veteran staff, in particular, may be skilled at hiding fatigue, or cynical perspectives of the business, while still producing high-quality work and benefiting the company’s bottom line. Sometimes it’s necessary to read between the lines of what someone says or types in emails – examine things like word choices, facial cues and body language as well. You don’t have to be an expert at interpreting gestures to tell when someone’s statements don’t match what their expressions and physical behaviors are communicating. 

Burnout manifests for HR in specific ways. HR Magazine cited excessive focus on task details (versus the big picture), interest in efficiency over all other key performance indicators, focusing on too many tasks without clear purpose and feelings of helplessness as major burnout risk factors for human resource management professionals. The Professionals in Human Resources Association noted that HR staffers are some of the most stressed-out individuals in the modern workplace. Moreover, the corporate consulting and surveying firm Blind found that 77.3% of HR professionals claimed to experience high burnout.

Zoomed-in blurry-focus photo of professional woman looking stressed outBurnout suffered by HR professionals can spread quickly to the other employees they oversee.

Why do you need to worry about HR burnout?

The answer to this question is simple: If the team members you rely upon to make all other employees lives’ easier aren’t capable of doing their jobs effectively due to personal stress, they can contribute to greater disengagement among those who they oversee. Responsibilities like payroll and scheduling, benefits administration, performance evaluation and even the management of employee complaints can sometimes seem routine, because certain functions involved with these tasks are repetitive. But they’re essential – just as much so for HR pros themselves as for every other employee. 

Add to all of this the societal and existential weight of the COVID-19 situation – which, after a brief period of declining case numbers in June, appears to be every bit the threat it was in March and April – and you have a potential setup for a genuinely bleak work environment. It will be incredibly important for you as an HR department head and other business leaders to face the issue of HR burnout head-on. Doing so can reinforce the strength of your company culture, benefit employees’ overall wellness and help keep valuable members of staff on board with the organization. 

What steps can companies take to help prevent burnout?

An easy first step on the road to mitigating burnout is to take an honest, detailed look at workloads currently assigned to each member of your HR team. Chances are everyone has more work assigned to them than what they’d normally handle – this might be unavoidable. What you have to ensure is that no one is experiencing genuine work overload. If unexpected departures earlier in the year left remaining team members saddled with duties they weren’t experienced in handling – e.g., a benefits professional suddenly found themselves tasked with handling confidential employee complaints – then you can redistribute work. No one should be handling HR operations they aren’t familiar with if someone else on the team would be better equipped to cover them. 

You don’t want your team members thinking they need to be “always on,” checking work emails late at night or when they’re on PTO. Ensure that they establish healthy boundaries between their work and home lives whether you’re all operating remotely or balancing in-office and work-from-home operations. As the PIHRA noted, HR must set positive examples for the entire workforce, and as team leader, you should instruct employees’ direct supervisors to promote a similar approach. This will ease stress and ultimately improve productivity. 

Lastly, employee wellness programs covering the full spectrum of well-being (physical, behavioral and financial) are essential to fighting burnout in HR and elsewhere. Behavioral health is extremely important for combating burnout’s mental dimensions. Physical health is also vital, in terms of ensuring employees address sickness immediately (instead of fighting through it) and have nutritional snack options available (perhaps via delivery for remote staff). And in fraught economic times, staff will appreciate money management advice, early wage access and other financial wellness offerings.

Staying connected despite the distance

According to a Quantum Workplace survey, although only 70% of professionals called themselves “highly engaged” when COVID-19 first hit the U.S., 83% said they were highly engaged after remote working become routine. (The resourcefulness and adaptability of modern working people can’t be overstated.)

That said, burnout is still a major threat to the well-being of HR pros and everyone else in your organization. Staying as connected as possible to remote workers can significantly mitigate that hazard, but keep in mind that we’re not just talking about departmental conferences and official business. Set aside time for your team to meet informally via video and vent about their stresses inside and outside of work, talk about their family lives or just banter about nothing. Giving them this space represents a critical act of empathy, signaling to your team that you care about them for reasons beyond their HR skill sets and want to further the fight against burnout. 

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