Human resources (HR) professionals are crucial to the wellness of the organizations they support. They organize wellness initiatives and are asked to recognize the symptoms of burnout in others within the organization. In addition, it is a critical role that supports businesses and their employees by developing and reinforcing the organization’s culture.
As professionals, they have done much to improve the way business is done in most organizations. However, they have failed to notice that they are becoming burned out themselves. Perhaps they have seen it but are avoiding facing the issue because they are in denial. Individuals may try to push through and get what needs to be done. Much of that mindset is based on the belief that they are solely responsible for staving off burnout. If that is true, surely, they can fix their burnout as well.
When was the last time you felt relaxed? When was the last time you stopped moving and did nothing? How long have you felt like this?
Stress is impacting HR at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, the focus is common for everyone today. Caroline Beaton writes, “In all likelihood, you know what burnout feels like exhaustion, disinterest, poor performance, irritability, lack of empathy.” It is no secret that our primal fight or flight tendencies no longer serve us in our modern environment. Instead, this causes us to react irrationally when we encounter threats that most do not require physical responses. There are numerous potential causes of burnout, many of which come into play for HR.
Women occupy many HR positions, and as is common with the glass ceiling, they tend to occupy lower positions within the HR function. Women have physiological and familial/societal detractors that work against us. Women tend to have lower resilience than men do overall. They also commonly play more significant roles in families as caretakers and bear more of the burden of raising children. This is particularly evident and crucial when the nuclear family is split. It is not to say that men never have these roles, only that it is more common for women to do. Women do have some exciting points working in their favor, too. “Women score higher in positivity, insight, compassion, and connection.” Each of us is unique in our demographic makeup, and when we speak about demographics, we speak in generalities.
Burnout can come from environmental factors both at work or outside work. “According to Statistic Brain, the number one cause of stress in American adults is job pressure.” Over and over again, work is the number one stressor in most adult lives.
Several factors can be attributed to our external environments are:
- High demands at work
- Problems of leadership and collaboration
- Contradictory instructions
- Time pressure
- The bad atmosphere at work; bullying
- Lack of freedom to make decisions
- Lack of influence on work organization
- Few opportunities to participate
- Low autonomy/right to contribute opinions
- Hierarchy problems
- Poor internal communication (employers, employees)
- Administrative constraints
- Pressure from superiors
- Increasing responsibility
- Poor work organization
- Lack of resources (personnel, funding)
- Problematic institutional rules and structures
- Lack of perceived opportunities for promotion
- Lack of clarity about roles
- Lack of positive feedback
- Poor teamwork
- Absence of social support
Work environments have changed rapidly in recent years. Organizations have become more globalized and culturally diverse. Technology changes constantly. This progression has allowed us always to be connected but also means that we feel as though we are always on and need to be readily available at any second. Irene McConnell attributes the top three causes of burnout to work overload, powerlessness, and insufficient reward. The rising workload is having a pronounced effect on employees’ well-being. “Employees with large caseloads experience burnout more often. Logically, the more you have on your plate, the more likely you are to experience burnout. However, overload alone is not enough to cause burnout, and it usually requires an ongoing period of excess.
We are expected to be more productive than ever, and the work pace is faster today than ever. Everyone is trying to do more with less. As a result, working hours and workloads have steadily risen. However, it is not uncommon today for organizations to conduct layoffs, which result in considerable stress both for employees and, to some extent, especially for HR and administrative staff. HR is often brought in on these decisions beforehand, resulting in challenging situations as you try to keep the layoff confidential from people you care about.
Interestingly, burnout appears to be more prevalent the larger the organization is. For example, in organizations with 100-500 employees, HR professionals considered burnout to be the cause of 10 percent or less of their turnover, while in organizations of 2,500 plus, they indicated that they anticipated that burnout was responsible for 50 percent or more. One possible explanation is that HR in smaller organizations is spread more thinly, resulting in less awareness of the issue that burnout. Smaller organizations may also have less burnout because employees are valued and seen more as individuals rather than “as a number.” It may be difficult for an employee in a smaller organization to experience burnout without someone taking notice and offer assistance before the employee leaves the organization.
Perhaps one of the most challenging things for employees that lead to burnout is reconciling the organization’s stated values and their actual values. “Employees exercise severe judgment when they witness a gap between organizational intentions and reality.” It causes employees to question the organization and their place in it as well as how the organization will treat them. This is a prevalent cause of burnout, even by well-meaning organizations. These changes within organizations overall pose specific challenges for HR professionals. HR is in a unique and sometimes difficult position caught between employees’ and management’s needs. Many view them as advocates for employees while also needing to keep the businesses’ needs in mind. Balancing both of these needs at the same time can seem impossible. HR is also frequently caught up in situations where the stated values are misaligned with practiced values, creating struggles for employees and the HR professional.
Burnout is also common in positions that are people-centric.HR is heavily people-oriented work. Significantly few days do not require extensive interaction with others in their jobs. Burnout is also prevalent in helping professions, such as human services, healthcare, etc. “Customer-facing occupations also pay a toll for employer-mandated emotional labor.” Generally speaking, their customers are their employees. HR bears the brunt of much of the emotional labor of its employees and essentially takes on the emotional work of their employees and their employers.
Many of the organizational pressures today are ones that HR is considered responsible for. Paula Davis-Laack writes, “At work, there is decreased wellbeing, lower staff retention, higher organizational system costs, higher turnover rates, lower morale and lack of cohesion in the organization as a whole.” Each of these factors directly affects HR on an almost daily basis. They do not necessarily have control over them entirely, but they are seen as impacting functions. As these concerns grow in the organizations, the pressure to overcome them can become overwhelming.
In addition, many of them suffer from stress in their home lives. The most common pressures experienced at home are usually centered around time, relationships, politics, and financial issues. Having a good family life and support network was connected to reduced burnout. In other words, when your home life is good, it can mean that you are less prone to burnout, but if your home life is not good, it can result in a greater likelihood of burnout.
Regardless of the reason, to start doing some of the critical work of healing your burnout, you have to accept your current state, whatever that may be, and openly talk about the issues you experience and how to tackle them. I know denying the truth and burying my head under a mountain of tasks played a role in my burnout. The importance of taking a step back, surveying your current situation, and taking active steps based on that information cannot be understated. It is crucial for our well-being.