Stressed Out HR: 7 Steps to Making Things Better

Human resource professionals are the “stress absorbers” for their organizations and often for individuals in the organization. They occupy a special niche in the organizational ecosystem — a critical one for the success of all companies.

But how can the HR professional cope with the stress created by filling this niche? This article shares seven steps to alleviate the burnout that can come with the job.

What if there was no HR?

Years ago, the television series, Twilight Zone, would begin with a monologue by Rod Serling. His opening lines included something close to the following: “Imagine if you will, a world without space or time…” Using that phrase as a springboard, consider the following phrase: “Imagine if you will a world without human resource departments…” A time, a place where there is no training and no performance reviews. Pay would be erratic and recruiting painful. Turnover would be high and the resulting lawsuits would make your head spin. You, my friend, have entered into the “No HR Zone.”

The value, impact, and difference that HR departments provide is often not felt until they are not around. Many staff and leaders have viewed human resources as a necessary evil, as a department that slowed down hiring, didn’t offer enough compensation to potential employees, and was overly cautious about legal issues.

Times have changed.

For another point of view see “There’s Nothing Wrong With HR That Can’t be Cured by Dismantling It.”

Instead of holding organizations back, the best HR units are transforming their organizations. New practices in the workplace have resulted from transformational programs led by HR. These changes have morphed chaos into structure, conflict into constructive exchange, and destructive sub-cultures into powerful, culturally-aligned systems that support business goals.

Many HR units have led the way in helping organizations abandon or change ways of operating that are no longer viable.

HR practices have allowed companies like Google and Apple to mobilize huge populations of employees, reflecting the power of these concerted efforts. Leadership is certainly an essential part of the program, but don’t forget the necessary driving forces throughout the system that keep the vision alive. HR is often the catalyst for change as well as the department that ushers in that change.

Despite this inspiring reality, too often HR is seen as an impediment. There are those who would love to have life without HR “in the way.” This thinking and its expression adds discouragement to the already challenging work experience of many HR professionals.

The impact on HR professionals

The personal cost to the individual HR/OD professional of executing these transformations, of being the “company stress absorber” can be high. Just like other professionals in care taking or human transformation roles, HR professionals can suffer from burnout, exhaustion, and other stress-related issues. Where does this burnout come from?

A calm voice and protector of secrets

If truth be told, HR is the protector of secrets. HR knows about the skeletons and where all of the dead bodies are buried. There are many individual and personal stories that cannot be shared either because of a personal respect for the individual’s privacy, or the potential risk to the organization.

HR paves the road for progress while providing solace, calm, guidance, and balance. Many a personal career would not be as vibrant and fulfilled without the partnership of human resources. As quiet as it may be kept, there is a great deal of power housed in HR departments.

HR is not just about following the book and policies; HR manages the cultural life behind the scenes. HR professionals operate in two different realms: The company side that is out there with the numbers, costs per hire, turnover rates, and such, and the side that makes the referrals to the employee assistance program. The HR professional at the center of this dance is rarely appreciated for mastering it. It is a well-kept secret. The dance is a quiet, often singular activity that is only known to a few.

You are collateral damage

Organizations seldom take inventory of the impact on the HR department which delivers the service, the “cures,” the remedies, and the transformations. At the end of the day, the impact on the HR professional is often considered “collateral damage,” a euphemism for those things that we don’t want to claim responsibility for causing, or we don’t have the courage to responsibly own, care for, and ultimately cure.

How can HR professionals replenish their energy, remain loyal to a structure that may not positively support them, and dig in effectively enough to provide the transformation that all organizations require? How does an HR professional manage his or her own sanity? How does this professional stay sane while battling concerns about defending the HR department itself?

The contradictions can be overwhelming. The isolation and challenging dynamics can easily consume and suck one under. When surveyed in 2013, about 45% of HR professionals were satisfied with their jobs. This is up from 36% in 2011. While the numbers have improved over time, there is still a majority of HR professionals who are not satisfied with their jobs.

Here’s what to do

Here are seven steps to stress reduction that begin to address the issue faced by HR “stress absorbers.”

1. Build political coalitions and allies.

A stakeholder analysis will help you get the work done and provide much of the necessary emotional support that is so vital to reducing personal stress.

2. Establish and maintain a high level vision.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky vision, but a vision of what the organization can be. This is with the full understanding that it may not come to fruition in your tenure, but it is a vision larger than any one individual’s work. It is only from that higher vantage point that you will be able to see beyond the daily stuff.

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3. Create a supportive cadre of like-minded partners.

These partners will share in your vision and they will touch upon the call that gets you up every morning (OK, most mornings) feeling energized and alive about your vision.

4. Forget about yourself.

You shouldn’t be mindless with respect to your personhood, but you should have the larger organizational goals and interests in mind. What does this look like?

  • Building staff talents that support a higher set of values.
  • Training management on the leadership skills that will mobilize the company in a way that exceeds expectations.
  • Creating system-wide cultural elements that leave everyone involved thankful for working within your organization.

5. Don’t enable clients or the organization.

Never do something for a staff member or the organization that either entity should be able to do on its own. This is a reflection of the old Chinese proverb about giving a fish versus teaching how to fish. You want to be a teacher.

6. Keep your power.

Keep speaking your truth. Sometimes you have to whisper it, write it, or wait. But never forget the validity of your truth about what you see in the organization and where you know the work needs to be done.

7. Practice deep, unrelenting self-care.

Powerful tools

The Twilight Zone would usually end with a quirky turnabout. There would always be some little word or scene that turned the entire plot around and here we are at that point.

Wake up. Come back to reality. Leave the Twilight Zone. Human resources does exist. Watch what happens in employee orientation, training, performance reviews, supervision, management training, and more — these are all powerful tools of HR. It makes a difference. And you, an HR professional, can stay sane in the process and avoid the twilight zone by paying attention to the seven steps to sanity.

Leon Bailey

Leon Bailey is the senior vice president for human resources at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. In this role, he has designed employee performance review systems and developed various diversity and inclusion initiatives at the foundation. Leon holds a Master of Public Administration degree from New York University. In addition he holds two degrees from New York Theological Seminary; a Master of Divinity and a Doctorate of Multi-faith Ministry.

Leon’s professional experience includes work in the profit and not for profit sectors. His business acumen led to the development and delivery of a turnkey franchising program for a national optical retailer as well as designing an effective performance compensation system that delivered results and empowered employees to manage their own rewards.

As an entrepreneur, Leon established the first family planning clinic for men in New Jersey; established the first community based alternative to incarceration and institutionalization for children in New Jersey and established one of the first community based transitional living programs in New Jersey to prepare young adults with special needs to live in the community.

Leon’s passion to help people as they travel their spiritual path led to the formation of the Church of Bethlehem in 2007. Leon lives in Connecticut and enjoys hiking and photography.

Laura Freebairn-Smith

Laura Freebairn-Smith has been a consultant for such distinguished companies as the New York Times and People’s Bank. Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in the redesign of infrastructure, the creation of strategic plans, and with organizational development.
Laura currently teaches leadership at Yale’s Drama School, and diversity and team building in the executive MBA program at Yale’s School of Management. Prior to that, she served as director of Yale’s Organizational Development and Learning Center, which she helped create.