The COVID-19 pandemic pushed human resource professional Brittanie Young, SHRM-SCP, into stress eating. It wasn’t long before she developed dangerously high blood pressure.

“I’ve learned that when I’m burned out, it’s very hard to have the energy to spend with family and friends, let alone try to exercise and get outside, which are essential for physical, mental and emotional health,” says Young, principal talent management consultant at Rejuvenate HR, a Memphis, Tenn.-based consulting firm. She helps small businesses and nonprofits—many of which have limited resources—develop HR strategies.

Young has gotten her blood pressure under control with the help of medication; gradually returned to a more active lifestyle that includes walking in the park with her daughter, playing soccer and going camping; and strengthened connections with family, friends and her church community.

“My favorite thing to do for self-care is to go kayaking on a nice, quiet lake,” she says. “Being on the water not only relaxes me, but forces me to be present in the moment and not staring at my phone.”

With the pandemic stretching into its third year and placing new demands on HR professionals on an almost daily basis, burnout is a very real concern. 

Burnout and exhaustion are widespread in HR, with 42% of teams struggling under the weight of too many projects and responsibilities, according to a survey of 726 HR practitioners in seven countries last year. 

Many HR professionals are dealing with a wide range of challenges that can fuel workplace burnout, including setting up remote operations, planning for a return to the office or hybrid work, complying with COVID-19 vaccination requirements, overseeing health and safety protocols, and recruiting and hiring during the massive wave of employee departures known as the Great Resignation.

Even before the pandemic began, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019 classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. In making its decision, the agency drew on the work of Christina Maslach, psychology professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. 

The WHO said burnout is characterized by:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism tied to the job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy. 

Many view burnout as an individual shortcoming rather than evaluating and improving the workplace environment so people can thrive, says Maslach, who has written several books on burnout and has a new one coming out this year.

A March 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than 40 percent of U.S. employees felt burned out from their work, and the problem was particularly acute among women, with nearly half reporting feeling that way.

A July 2021 survey by The Hartford found that more than 60 percent of U.S. workers were experiencing burnout, and the more stressed and exhausted employees felt, the more likely they were to look for a new job. Of those who said they were “extremely likely” to look for a new job in the next six months, 55 percent said they “always” feel burned out.

‘My favorite thing to do for self-care is to go kayaking on a nice, quiet lake. Being on the water forces me to be present in the moment and not staring at my phone.’
Brittanie Young, SHRM-SCP, Memphis, Tenn.041_byoung.png

Significant Stressors

The pandemic has left many HR professionals grappling with seemingly unending stress as they try to find the best ways to cope with the ramifications. Burnout and exhaustion are rife in HR, with 42 percent of teams struggling under the weight of too many projects and responsibilities, according to a survey of 726 HR practitioners in seven countries last year. 

Ironically, the report by Lattice, a provider of HR software solutions, noted, “The team tasked with upscaling the rest of the organization is critically understaffed itself. Among HR leaders who said they were emotionally exhausted, more than two-thirds blamed it on being overworked, and more than 40 percent said it was because they needed additional headcount to meet their business goals.”

Sharon Kittredje, vice president of people at streaming platform Agora in Santa Clara, Calif., says the abrupt switch to an all-remote workplace two years ago forced many in HR to immediately have to figure out how to recruit, onboard, engage and offboard employees remotely, with “no context for best practices.”

At the same time, employees experienced “a tremendous amount of distress with the change in work style and environment,” Kittredje says, leaving HR to figure out how to keep employees feeling engaged and supported.

“Nobody was really taking care of HR while we were running around like headless chickens trying to make sure everybody else was OK,” Kittredje says. 

HR is “the place where stress goes to live in an organization,” she adds.

Raghida Abdallah Yassine, an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., says it falls to HR “to create the policies for the well-being of the employees and company.”

It can be a particular burden because everybody seeks out the HR team when questions and issues arise, says Yassine, who adds, “It’s OK if you don’t know the answer right now.”

‘Going on a walk helps me reset. I look up and all around me to take in my surroundings, and I’m reminded of so many things that make me smile or offer inspiration.’
Charlotte Kackley, SHRM-SCP, Santa Monica, Calif. 041_byoung.png

Myriad Challenges

“It’s been an incredibly stressful couple of years,” says Rachel Maher, operations manager at the Village School of North Bennington, an independent school in Vermont serving about 150 pre-kindergartners through sixth-graders. Maher, who is responsible for all HR tasks, says she and other school staff have been asked to, among other things, stand outside in the bitter cold to screen students and staff for COVID-19 as well as remain up-to-date on shifting medical guidance and facilities management information from both public health and education authorities. 

HR professionals across organizations also faced the challenge of keeping up with the ever-changing federal employee vaccination mandates. 

“We don’t know what to prepare for,” says Jennefer Rivera, regional human resources business partner with Advance Auto Parts, based in Raleigh, N.C.

During the pandemic, Rivera says, she has had to take on more administrative tasks, “as opposed to being a strategic thinker.”

And there are struggles to fill open jobs. “It has become a burden to find people,” Rivera says. “There’s no real answer to what happened to the pool of people prior to the pandemic. Where are they now?”

Josh Rock, talent acquisition manager at Nuss Truck & Equipment in Rochester, Minn., says, “This is a candidate market, not an employer market, now. It’s more difficult as a recruiter than it has ever been.”

And as a parent, Rivera—like many others—has had to balance working from home while caring for her children as the pandemic shut down schools. “I had to be parent, tutor and problem-solver,” she says.

‘Sometimes music can be a way of disengaging and resetting. It creates memories. These are ways for me to shut work off and be present. It’s always fulfilling.’
Josh Rock, Rochester, Minn.041_byoung.png

Workplace Support

While it typically falls on employees to figure out how to deal with burnout, “there’s increased recognition that organizations need to do more,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, which is part of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

Gruttadaro says if she had to quantify it, she thinks about 70 percent of the responsibility for burnout lies with the organization and 30 percent lies with each individual. 

But many are finding ways to cope professionally.

At the U.S. division of Agora, Kittredje was the company’s sole HR employee at the start of the pandemic. During the past two years, the company tripled in size to 190 employees and also conducted an initial public offering.

Agora now has three employees in the HR department, providing Kittredje with “a sense of relief” because she can delegate tasks. She recommends that HR professionals learn to “delegate aggressively.”

“One trap HR folks fall into is believing they have to do it all, all the time,” she says.

Kittredje also urges others to block out time each day to “think, breathe, take a walk.”

And she has turned to her HR mentor, who is her best friend, for support. “She has a wealth of experience,” Kittredje says. “I lean on her a lot.”

While focusing on helping employees manage their stress, HR professionals may neglect themselves, Maher says. “Sometimes it feels a lot like a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality for HR because we can get so wrapped up in easing the burden on others that we don’t remember to care for ourselves, too,” she says.

As is the case with all employees, HR professionals often need reminders of existing benefits. For example, Advance Auto Parts offers an employee assistance program with 10 free counseling sessions. “We offer so many great benefits that we don’t take advantage of ourselves,” Rivera says.

One positive from the past two years, Young says, is that “the pandemic has forced companies to realize that burnout is real”; as a result, some are doing more to assist employees.

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Stress Manifestations

HR professionals have seen stress manifest itself in different ways. Maher says she has become more impatient at home and at work and has lost her temper a few times over things that wouldn’t normally faze her. 

She says she also has had trouble sleeping, and she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night with her mind churning over to-do lists or work situations that she might have handled better.

Charlotte Kackley, SHRM-SCP, is the HR director at Merchant Maverick, a website that reviews small-business software and services. The company has always operated remotely. 

While working from home allows for flexible scheduling, Kackley says she can get so caught up with work that she may not change her sweatshirt or leave the house for a couple of days. 

She has started setting boundaries, such as not checking Slack messages after 7 p.m. Otherwise, she found, she had a hard time letting go of the workday, which contributed to bouts of insomnia.

‘As professionals who deal with mental strain, shutting the lights out at work or home and taking time to breathe and recharge is important and should be made a priority.’
Jennefer Rivera, Kutztown, Pa.041_byoung.png

Coping Personally

If she starts to feel frazzled or anxious about work, Kackley says she may have to push those feelings aside in order to meet a deadline. “When that happens,” she says, “I think of a plan to recover and destress when it’s done. Most often, my plan involves a day or two of PTO and a good book.”

She also realizes the emotional toll the pandemic can take if employees live alone and are cooped up inside all day. 

Kackley, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., said she has started scheduling a half-hour walk on her calendar each day. 

“Something as simple as going on a walk helps me reset,” she says. “I practice mindful breathing, I look up and all around me to take in my surroundings, and I’m reminded of so many things that make me smile or offer inspiration.”

Rock has turned to music as a way to destress and unwind. He listens to different kinds of music during the workday and went to five concerts over the summer, seeing musicians such as Garth Brooks and James Taylor with family and friends. 

With burnout, “sometimes music can be a way of disengaging and resetting,” he says.

A father of three, Rock has brought his children with him to various concerts, as well as to National Hockey League autograph sessions. These outings provide an outlet for both him and his kids, who have not been able to socialize as they normally would because of the pandemic. 

“It creates memories with them,” he says. At the same time, “these are ways for me to shut work off and be present with them. It’s always fulfilling.”

To get a break from it all, Rivera turns to meditation and essential oils. She’ll turn the lights off and the diffuser on. 

“That has really helped both at work and personally,” she says.

Rivera also has embraced self-help books and journaling. 

“As professionals who deal with mental strain,” she says, “shutting the lights out at work or home and taking time to breathe and recharge is important and should be made a priority.”  

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

Photo illustrations by C.J. Burton and Gremlin/iStock.

Photographs by Steven Jones (Brittanie Young), Sabrina Hill (Charlotte Kackley), Joe Szurszewski (Josh Rock),  Candy Hoehn (Jennefer Rivera). 

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Understanding Burnout

While people often talk about being burned out when they feel tired, anxious or stressed at work or at home, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

“Burnout is not synonymous with everyday stress,” says Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute. It involves feelings of exhaustion, being mentally distant from the job and being less effective professionally, according to the WHO. 

There are at least six aspects of work that can fuel burnout, says Christina Maslach, psychology professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. They are:

  • Workload or overload: high demands and low resources, such as a lack of time, employees or equipment.
  • Control or autonomy: a feeling of having no control over the job.
  • Feedback: a lack of rewards or recognition for a job well done.
  • Workplace community: employees not getting along or receiving needed support.
  • Fairness: standards not being applied fairly or workers not receiving equitable treatment.
  • Value or meaning: not feeling as though work is valued.

“You can cope, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” Maslach says. It’s up to the organization to determine what it can do to improve the situation.

Individual coping strategies usually involve taking a break, cutting back hours or getting away. 

“What is going on with the job that the best thing is to get away from it?” Maslach asks.

And while getting away might work in the short term, if the employee returns to the same work environment, “the same problems are going to pop up,” she says.

To help address burnout, organizations can take such measures as increasing the time and tools for employees to get the job done or creating opportunities for employees to connect in a remote or hybrid workplace, says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, which is part of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

“HR has been under incredible stress,” she says, adding that professionals who have done well should garner recognition from leaders. 

Organizations can hold town hall meetings or conduct surveys to try to assess the level of employee burnout and then look at one or two areas to address, Gruttadaro says. 

“Don’t tackle it all at once,” she advises. “A small change can lead to really big results. It sends a message to employees you care about them.”

On an individual basis, improving diet, sleep, exercise routines and social connections can help, Gruttadaro says.

It’s also “important to start to normalize the experience of stress and discuss it,” Davis adds. “Say something; don’t hold it in. It’s not a secret thing we can’t talk about at work.” —S.L.


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