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How HR Leaders Can Manage Their Mental Health

A smiling woman with long hair in a blouse looks off to the right.

Organizations are increasingly focusing on employee well-being programs, but the HR leaders who design and operate those programs often face their own mental health challenges. While 93% of HR professionals find the work they do to be meaningful and purposeful, 75% say working in HR is emotionally exhausting, according to recent SHRM data.

“As HR leaders, our ability to manage our own stress and mental health directly influences our effectiveness in supporting our teams,” says Paul Wolfe, an HR consultant; former CHRO at Indeed, Conde Nast, and; and author of Human Beings First: Practices for Empathetic, Expressive Leadership (Publish Your Purpose, 2023). “If we are not at our best, it becomes challenging to provide the clarity, confidence, and direction necessary for our teams to thrive. Managing our mental health isn’t just about personal well-being; it’s about setting a standard and creating a healthier, more empathetic work environment.”

To build truly healthy organizations, HR leaders must put on their proverbial oxygen masks first so they can model healthy behaviors for others.

Why HR Leaders Must Prioritize Their Own Mental Well-Being

Positive employee well-being is a powerful predictor of a company’s corporate success and financial performance, according to a 2023 study from the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University. Happier people are more productive and better able to resolve challenges, which helps drive organizational success. But employee well-being also translates into positive personal outcomes: Happier people are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.

It’s up to HR leaders to foster an environment where healthy, resilient employees are more engaged and productive—and better able to handle stress—in order to drive business performance and success. That’s a tall order and can itself lead to increased stress for HR executives.

For example, 80% of HR professionals say that managing the expectations between executives and employees is stressful, and 77% say they often feel caught in the middle of the strategic vision set by leadership and the practical realities faced by employees, according to SHRM’s data. More than a third (36%) say that hearing employees’ stories related to death, illness, and workplace experiences negatively impacts their own mental health.

“HR leaders are facing new pressures in the workplace and often finding themselves caught in the middle between emotional caregiving for employees and a hyper focus on the bottom line,” says Jenna Glover, chief clinical officer at Headspace, a leading app for mental health support and mindfulness. “Leading teams and maintaining a strong company culture despite these external challenges is essential for high-functioning organizations, but if leaders are struggling, we risk a trickling down of instability, worry, dread, and stress.”

Every person has a limit to what they can handle at any time, says Christy Pruitt-Haynes, Global Head of Talent and Performance Practice at NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy. “When a HR professional’s cognitive capacity is taxed because they are struggling to thrive and searching for ways to improve their situation, they often won’t have the bandwidth to take care of their team members and co-workers, an important part of their job,” she says.

Coping with Stress and Safeguarding Your Well-Being

HR leaders must take deliberate steps to prioritize their own mental health. For example, Lisa Sanchez, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., recommends protecting your time, space, and capacity by doing the following:

Set boundaries for how many meetings are held in a day.

  • Carve out time on your calendar for self-care, and stick to the routine. Sanchez makes time for a walk every day at noon, for example. 
  • Teach people how to treat you through reinforcement of personal boundaries. For example, “politely say, ‘I can’t meet at that time; that’s my lunch break,’ or, ‘I can’t meet right now, but I’m available at 2 p.m.,’ ” Sanchez says.
  • Be honest and let people know when you’ve reached your capacity. Sanchez recommends saying something like, “Today, I’ve had so many meetings. I want to give you my full attention. Can we meet tomorrow at 10 a.m.?”

Another important way to support your mental health is to avoid overcommitting yourself. Ali Bebo, CHRO at Pearson, tries to live by the phrase, “Say no to most things.”

“HR faces so many demands,” Bebo says. “We can’t do everything, and trying to do everything leaves us not only burnt out and stressed but also unable to be our best selves or do our best work. When you prioritize your life to do fewer things, you can do each one better. Saying no to most things is really a challenge to prioritize. That way, you can identify blockers, stressors, and other obstacles that are keeping you or your teams from feeling their best. That’s when you unlock performance and productivity.”

Headspace’s Glover recommends focusing on what you can control. “Invest time and energy into actions that are in your personal control as a leader,” she says. “Recognize your team’s achievements and make time to celebrate the wins, both big and small. Create constants to maintain a sense of stability in your life, like a consistent bedtime or regular exercise.”

Setting a Good Example

As HR leaders work to prioritize their own mental health, it’s also important to model this approach to the rest of the team. For example, Wolfe, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, has prioritized being transparent about his own mental health conditions to foster a culture of openness.

“By sharing my experiences, I encourage others to do the same, thereby reducing stigma and promoting understanding,” he says. “For instance, openly discussing how I manage stress and the importance of mental health days helps normalize these practices. I've observed other HR leaders who schedule ‘no-meeting days’ or implement regular check-ins that focus solely on well-being, not just work output, which significantly aids in stress management and promotes a more supportive workplace culture.”


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