By Derek Tracy, MBA, MS, SPHR, HR Services Manager
In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon with a direct link to diseases that are a workplace hazard, validating what many had been feeling in their roles. They did not classify burnout as a disease but defined it as a syndrome caused by inadequately managed chronic workplace stress exhibited by exhaustion, negativity, and reduced professional effectiveness. Burnout occurs across the spectrum of positions, and HR is no exception. In fact, more recently, Forbes reported that as many as 98% of HR professionals are experiencing burnout, a number that has been increasing rapidly over the last 18 months. In addition to that alarming number, they also found:
Why is HR experiencing such a high burnout rate?
HR professionals wear many hats. They act as therapists, cheerleaders, strategists, leaders, and compliance experts, while also trying to manage their work-life balance. Under the HR umbrella lives a whole host of issues that have become highly complex over the past decade, and some became even more complex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s take a look back to understand the historical context that has led to these high rates of burnout.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, it’s important to note that HR went through a sort of quiet evolution. Traditionally, HR focused on administrative functions like recruiting, employee discipline, payroll, and benefits administration. However, increasing regulatory and compliance requirements coupled with competition and a growing number of workplace efficiency models have driven human resources to expand into a more strategic business function responsible for curating workforce development and forecasting, pay equity and compensation strategies, employee engagement and lifecycle management, and leadership training and development. This expansion required increased specialization and a broader level of expertise from HR professionals. Companies that had not yet made this transition were forced to catch up by the shutdown mandates implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, and their HR teams quickly took on a more strategic role.
COVID-19 caused havoc for most organizations and their employees. Many employers had to reduce their workforce. While a necessary business decision, this placed stress on HR professionals who oversaw layoffs. As HR teams rushed to adjust procedures and policies to manage a remote workforce or maintain the safety of onsite employees, they struggled to implement ever-changing protocols from the CDC, OSHA, federal and state laws, and regional mandates. For most employers, managing a remote team was new; they had no clear playbook. HR teams were placed in charge of keeping employees connected and engaged while experiencing continuous ongoing and poorly managed personal and workplace stress.
COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, providing employers with hope for a way forward into a post-pandemic “new normal.” However, not everyone was willing to get the vaccine. HR struggled to decipher the legality of vaccine mandates, the creation of related policies, and how to address religious accommodations as they applied to vaccine mandates. HR professionals struggled with returning employees to the office safely, maintaining a remote or hybrid workforce, and the emerging challenge of retaining employees while experiencing continuous ongoing and poorly managed workplace stress.
The struggle to retain employees proved to be a more significant and longer-term issue for employers. The “Great Resignation” brought a historically tight labor market, making it difficult for employers and HR teams to attract and retain top talent. In March 2022, a record 4.5 million quit their jobs. HR teams, often shot-staffed, continued to focus significant energy on recruiting efforts and developing innovative programs to maintain an adequate workforce. All the while, important HR projects fell behind as HR professionals experienced continuous ongoing and poorly managed workplace stress.
HR teams have a lot on their plate
Due to the expanded and complex scope of HR responsibilities, in-house HR departments often find themselves in reactive mode. They are dealing with whatever crisis has made it to the top of their lists, making it difficult to attend to strategic initiatives that are beneficial for the organization in the long run.
Employment laws have become increasingly complicated. With the federal government gridlocked, states have been left to fill the void, implementing employment regulations varying from state to state. Pay equity, paid leave, workplace harassment prevention, and pay transparency, are all trending regulatory concerns, and many states have already passed laws that legislate these complex programs or soon will. This rapid pace of employment law updates makes it very difficult for HR professionals to maintain compliance. Employee handbooks and policies require updates at a dizzying pace. Many employers are now managing a multi-state workforce which adds another layer of complexity as they struggle to maintain compliance and an engaged workforce.
The Shortage of skilled workers in today’s labor market has made employee retention critical, leaving HR professionals struggling to find and retain talent. Due to this incredibly tight labor market, as evidenced by historically low unemployment numbers, employers can’t afford to lose valued employees. The rapid growth in remote work positions has provided new opportunities for highly talented employees to work for organizations from almost anywhere. It is no longer possible to function in an HR role without having business acumen and understanding how staffing and human capital impact financial performance. Forward-thinking employers are utilizing HR to maximize each employee’s strengths rather than reprimanding their shortcomings. This new approach is a change of pace for HR professionals, presenting yet another challenge and adding to HR burnout.
HR is a valuable resource for business development
The bottom line, HR has evolved from a transactional to a transformative business function and has a valuable seat at the table. Savvy businesses recognize that HR leaders provide a perspective that can help shape an organization’s strategy. HR professionals possess unique insight into the health of an organization’s culture and the prevailing disposition of its employee population. Employees interact with HR regularly, providing feedback that can be utilized for continuous improvement strategies and contribute significantly to the organization’s success.
Reducing HR burnout for your team
Every business is unique; there is no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing or addressing burnout. However, studies overwhelmingly find that an integrated approach to personal-professional life works wonders. Provide your HR leaders with the authority and technology to create synergy, which has been proven to drive greater business outcomes. Take action to promote a collaborative environment that encourages all employees, including HR professionals, to prioritize work-life balance both inside and outside the office. Encourage employees to connect with each other and make room for non-work-related engagement. Every employee will eventually experience burnout if they do not take time to detach from their professional responsibilities. Additionally, consider what mental health benefits would better support your team. Many organizations are providing tools for employees to protect and prioritize their mental health, helping them avoid the turmoil of burnout.
Relieve some of the stress for your HR team by providing training, hiring additional HR professionals, engaging an HR consultant, and exploring outsourcing options.
Training is an affordable option for HR professionals that may lack proficiency in a few areas that are key to their HR program. This may come in the form of specialized training to master a particular skill set, certification through an organization like SHRM or HRCI, maintaining certification, or training to keep current on new employment regulations, emerging HR technology and platforms, or best practices related to changes in the business environment. Training can give your HR team members the skills to tackle HR projects confidently, significantly reducing stress levels.
If your team lacks expertise in specific areas that regularly need to be addressed, hire specialists to address those needs on an ongoing basis to keep your HR program adequately covered. As HR responsibilities have expanded, the need for specialization has increased. If your organization reduced or lost HR staff over the past few years, it may be time to level up your HR department. One way to ensure that each of your team members has adequate bandwidth and that their responsibilities fall within the scope of their skill set is to bring on new HR staff to lighten the load and increase expertise.
In some cases, you just need some help with a project or two that have fallen behind or an assessment to see where your HR program can gain efficiencies. Perhaps you need help shoring up your compensation program or complying with a new leave or pay equity law. You may want to implement a more effective employee development plan, training platform, or performance management program. An HR consultant is an affordable option that can provide your HR team with support on projects that have been difficult to tackle, provide insight into where your team may feel stuck, or take on these one-time projects so your team can stay focused on maintaining your HR program.
Many organizations bring on an HR outsourcing partner to reap the benefits of an entire team of specialists or to take care of transactional activities that free up their internal HR team to focus on strategic initiatives. Consider offloading time-consuming and legally mandated tasks, such as leave administration or benefits administration, or perhaps, offloading the entire HR function so your team can better focus on the organization’s goals.
While the stats may be alarming, HR burnout is not insurmountable, but it won’t go away on its own. If you take a proactive approach and provide your HR team with the appropriate resources to confidently achieve a successful HR program, you can reduce stress levels and ensure optimal performance from your workforce.