A Critical Conversation to Stop Burnout in the HR Ranks: Have you considered the unnoticed pile of angst dumped on the desks – and hearts – of Human Resource Professionals – and the risk to companies if they don't fix it ASAP.
As companies face an intensifying race for talent or an unfortunate shrinking headcount, the human resources role is only going to become more difficult. I'm fascinated by how most HR leaders have kept their cool and focused on the tasks-at-hand the last few years. I'm not convinced the mounting unreasonable expectations on HR is sustainable.
My question 'Are HR Leaders the Next Wave To Quit?' is based on dozens of behind-the-scenes conversations I’ve had with HR professionals and other executives responsible for the human-resources function like business owners and managing partners in accounting firms. The frustrating scenario I am sharing is based on themes from my conversations - I realize that not EVERY HR leader feels the same way. Many feel very balanced in their workload, respected by their colleagues, and have enough resources to do their job comfortably.
Most HR Leaders would never complain about the pressure publicly. They love their work and believe they are making a difference - they are. That doesn't mean that HR is not a tough role - it is. Let's be mindful that each person has a breaking point. What if, after supporting countless employees and leadership colleagues through this tough time of the last few years - they burn out and decide to quit? Who will juggle the increasing pressures of stress leaves, quiet quitting, the great resignation, the misplaced emotions of employees, or mass layoffs?
If HR says, 'Screw it - I'm outta here' companies are in trouble. It's up to everyone who uses the HR departments to recognize this risk and do their part to mitigate it.
Here are my observations of what many HR leaders wish others knew (Don't take my word for it - ask your HR leaders - or check your common sense):
- HR professionals are not therapists, but they often feel like they need to be.
- HR professionals don’t have magic wands to fix everything that their colleagues and team members dislike about the workplace culture – although that’s often the expectation placed on them.
- HR professionals rarely take time to process their own angst about work because they are too busy dealing with the needs of everyone else.
- HR professionals care immensely. That doesn't mean they aren't frustrated and starting to resent having to be the collector of angst for the entire company.
I believe this unsustainable pressure on HR is unintentional. It could be that people don’t realize the amount of angst that’s being dumped on the desks – and hearts - of HR leaders. It could be that people are so overwhelmed with their own issues that they fail to account for the reality that HR is the collective dumping ground for EVERYONE’s angst – not just each person's department.
To be clear, I'm not an HR leader; rather I coach and consult for executives who are responsible for their team's well-being. I’m convinced that if their colleagues and team members better understood the negative impact of the relentless unloading that happens behind closed doors and the unrealistic expectations placed on them to fix the unfixable, then collectively we could avoid this quietly looming trend of HR doing the quitting.
Imagine you’re Jesse, a seasoned human resource executive and this is how your day unfolds…
You offer a sigh of relief, ‘Finally, I have a window to get some work done.’ Just as you sink into your first task, there’s a(nother) knock on your door. It’s one of the company’s senior managers, “Can I talk with you for a moment, please?”
OH, how you wish you could say no. Now is really not a good time. You’ve been in meetings all day; your to-do list is a mile long; and you’re facing a deadline crunch for tomorrow morning’s 8:00AM meeting with the CEO. Plus, you’re experienced enough to know that anyone who asks for a ‘moment’ is time blind and does not actually know what the word moment means.
A quick glance at your unread email count and the pile of files on your desk and the vision of watching your son’s karate practice later that night is erased – after all, the person at your door is the top priority, right? You love people – that’s why you became a human resource professional. The work is about serving people; it’s not about pushing paperwork.
Within a moment (a real one) your mind rejigs your priorities and decides you can work later that night instead of going to bed early. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three years anyway – why start now?
You minimize your inbox, flip the cover of your note pad closed as you move it off to the side of your desk. “Sure – come on in. What’s on your mind?”
Twenty minutes into listening to the senior manager’s rant, you continue to listen – actively – and empathize with their situation. You get it; it’s tough out there. Morale is down. Their team is stretched thin, but it’s not just their team that needs more staff – it’s a company-wide problem. You’re trying – you really are, but you have no magic wand to fix this.
You understand that they are tired from having to calm fears about the rumoured structural changes being made at the executive table. If you had answers, you’d share them, but you don’t. No one knows the future. Clearly, people are on edge. There’s a lot of uncertainty and unrest within the company. Clients are frustrated with their own lives and world events, and often take out their anger on front-line staff which is causing even more angst within the team dynamics.
Eventually, the senior manager is ready to leave. They have successfully vented their troubles - like a pressure cooker’s valve being released. “Thanks for the chat,” they say, “I feel better now.”
BUT what about you – the HR leader who, for the seventh time today, just absorbed a person’s angst? The colleague feels better but now their problems are your problems. You have more tasks to do, more obstacles to solve, and another late night to catch up.
‘Don’t take it personally,’ the CEO tells you the next morning. ‘They’ll be fine; we have an EAP in place, don’t we?”
You can’t help but to take it personally. You feel responsible for the team’s well-being and the company’s culture. If there’s a problem with the team dynamics, then that’s on you - even if you can't resolve it. Feeling responsible for propping up everyone’s mood is exhausting – it’s an impossible game.
The truth is the CEO is sheltered from the reality on the ground. They don’t truly ‘get it’ and if they do, they operate from a 30,000 foot view of the culture. They hired you to deal with the weeds.
There’s a level of decorum that’s expected at the highest levels of executive leadership. Rarely would a junior team member walk into the CEO’s office, throw up their problems – petty or otherwise in an unfiltered way and then expect the CEO to pick up the pieces. The executives around the head honcho absorb the emotional intensity from the next level of hierarchy.
When someone walks into your HR office, it's as if they forget their filter at the door. In fairness, that’s what you want - you literally have given them permission to unload their angst. Better to you, than to their team members or customers. You want people to feel safe and that you’re the person they can turn to when times are tough – but times are ALWAYS tough and it’s wearing thin.
The HR professionals I’ve talked with have similar stories of absorbing the angst from their teams. The main variable in this story is the executive leadership’s level of empathy and willingness to implement strategies to solve issues with the team dynamic. Some executives offer lip service while others are gung ho and open to any answers that can lower stress and retain talent.
The irony is that it doesn’t matter which way executives lean – new initiatives and the status quo alike put more on the HR leader’s plate. It can feel like a hopeless, unsolvable loop.
Given the heaviness of the HR role, how can HR leaders and us, the people they serve, work together to create less angst for them as they do their best to attempt to make less angst for their teams?
Here are a few solutions I’ve worked with teams to implement:
Accept 100% Responsibility for How You Interact At Work.
Unending change and uncertainty in the world can make it difficult to separate the forest through the trees. Adopting a compassionately curious approach to self-awareness can empower each of us to examine our role in making challenging circumstances even harder. Learn to self-soothe, stop creating unnecessary problems, and assume that your colleagues are doing the best they can with the (likely limited) resources they have – even if their results don’t live up to your standards.
Adopt a common language for issues so that collectively you can problem-solve faster.
One of the most powerful aspects of the methodology that I teach in my keynotes and as part of my flagship training program and consulting practice is that it provides a common language so everyone can clearly articulate the issue at hand and arrive at the same page faster. Without this it will take longer to cut through the angst. Create a common language for addressing and accessing problems. For example...
Clarify if you want to VENT, COMPLAIN, or PROBLEM-SOLVE.
Venting is the natural release of angst. You’ll notice the intensity of a situation is lessened as you express frustration. Everyone needs a safe, judgment-free place to clearly articulate a problem and not have it held against them in the future. By announcing you just need to VENT then there is no expectation for a solution or advice. Vent faster; set a time limit. It’s also helpful to journal problems before articulating them aloud to get clarity on your thinking.
Complaining is an expression of dissatisfaction that can get stuck in a one-way loop. There is no advancement to the emotional intensity and irritation of the situation. There is little expectation to fix the issue, in fact it may be unreasonable to expect the HR leader to have any control over it, but it feels good to be heard. You may just need your point-of-view to be validated. Complaining is a core barrier to performance that creates unnecessary destructive stress which causes overwhelm, burnout, and emotional angst.
Problem-solving is a proactive effort to find solutions. If the goal is to problem-solve, then focus on the issue at hand. In my work, I share a problem-solving framework to quickly work through issues to get to a solution. If you’re not familiar with my work, that’s no problem – most talented professionals can find solutions when they strip away the venting and the complaining from an issue.
Establish office hours and focused work blocks of protected time – for everyone – and RESPECT them.
Allowing willy-nilly conversations to occur whenever there is an issue will create more issues. Don’t expect to get any focused work done during office hours, but if no one has an HR complaint during the allotted window, then consider it bonus time. If, as a colleague or employee, you don’t respect the leadership's need for focused time, how can you expect YOU to get uninterrupted time to work, too? This is typically a workplace culture issue.
HR Leaders Are Not Meant to be Teachers Supervising Recess on a Playground
It’s not okay to bring drama, gossip, cliques, bullying, or any other negative approaches to human interactions into the workplace. While it’s common place (unfortunately) - if these tactics are happening in your circles, then stop participating in the tactics. Without the players, the game will fizzle. There are so many free resources online to learn how to emotionally and mentally regulate - if this is a challenge for you, then do the work to be better.
Don’t Look to HR to Wave a Magic Wand
Fixing issues takes time and many issues aren’t resolvable to the way you want them to be resolved. The more resistance, complaining, and nagging that happens within a workplace culture, the more angst will surround issues and, if there is a fix on the horizon (which there may not be) those habits will prolong the process. Also, your opinion on how something needs to be addressed may not account for many other elements that aren't on your radar. If you feel strongly about a potential solution - clearly articulate your perspective through the proper channels.
Ask an HR leader how they are doing.
Imagine the toll of listening to and addressing the needs of all the people on a team. While most HR leaders will recognize that this is what they signed up for when they chose the profession, that doesn’t mean it isn’t tough emotionally and mentally. Remember Human Resource Professionals are humans too – they just don’t have anyone ‘resourcing’ them.
It’s your turn to chime into the conversation.
- If you’re a leader responsible for team dynamics – what do you wish your team knew or did to make things better?
- As a team member or colleague who goes to HR for resources – what do you wish they understood about your frustrations? It’s a two-way street.
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