HR Consultants Battle Burnout

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Nov 22, 2010
HR practitioners, including consultants, are under a great deal of pressure these days. Fewer prospects. More clients deciding to do it themselves. Consultants must stay current with changes in the regulatory arena and the new health care reform law. Add to that the need to become savvy about Internet marketing and social media, and it’s not surprising that consultants are burning out.

Beth Thomas is an executive VP with Sequent, in Dublin, Ohio, an HR consulting and outsourcing company. “Human resource consulting is tougher than ever before,” said Thomas. “With the downturn in the economy, we have seen HR organizations in particular get slashed—head count and budget. With that comes not only a loss of talent but also a loss of support for its employees. It’s the HR consultant who has to put it back together and turn things around.”

Joy Martin agrees. Martin is an HR/recruiting consultant and coach with Segaric Coaching and a recruiting manager at IBM Global Business Services and is based in the Boston area. “I believe wholeheartedly that there is extreme burnout among HR consultants in the current market environment, and it is much worse than it has ever been in recent years,” said Martin. “There is tremendous pressure to deliver results in an environment where almost no result is good enough. No matter how successful you may be in achieving your goals for your client organization, it may not be good enough to beat a budget cut. Your livelihood may be cut off no matter what your successes are, so the stakes are higher than in previous years where, if you did a good job, you knew you would be retained for the next six months to a year.”

Add to that the uncertainty of what might be around the corner. “It makes it that much harder to feel good about the work you’re doing and knowing that the company you are consulting to may not ‘have your back’,” said Martin. “Or your services may not be needed at a moment’s notice.”

What It Feels Like

Burnout is experienced differently by different people, said Martin, but she said: “I would say the most common experience is working extended hours, feelings of stress, little time to spend with family, fatigue—and even depression and other signs of poor health.”

Stephen Moulton is president and “chief insight officer” for Action Insight, Inc., an HR consulting firm in Broomfield, Colo. There are three things that Moulton said he has seen lead to consultant burnout:

  • Trading in one boss for a bunch of bosses. “Becoming a consultant means leaving the certainty and security of a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of multiple paychecks. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity and a high-stress level, you will burn out fast,” he said.
  • Trying to be all things to all people. “I’ve seen many consultants fall prey to developing new solutions for each new client. This will burn you out fast, as you are constantly developing new stuff and getting little in return for your effort,” he said. “Pick a niche, be really good at something and identify your perfect client,” he recommended. “Know who you can best serve, and build a reputation in that community.”
  • Being technically good at what you do but being afraid of selling and marketing yourself. “All too often when someone decides to create a business they see themselves as good at what they have learned to do,” said Moulton. But, he noted: “Before you can do what you do best, you need to sell yourself and get the business. If that scares you, or you think of selling as sleazy, you will not only burn out—but go broke.”

What to Do?

It’s important for HR consultants who are feeling the effects of burnout to recognize that they are not alone. And beyond that important realization, there are a number of things that HR consultants can do to ease their feelings of burnout.

First, HR consultants need to set limits, said Martin. And, she said: “They know that.” In addition, she said, they should “keep a track record of their successes so that even on tough days they can remind themselves of the 100 people they have hired in the quarter or the new HR initiative they helped launch.”

Simple relaxation techniques can help. “If we get off a stressful conference call, we can do some deep breathing or actually step away from the work for 10 minutes to clear your head, give you perspective or time to come up with a new idea.”

Simma Lieberman has been an organizational development consultant for more than 20 years. She is based in Albany, Calif. “As cliché as this sounds, I use breathing and visualization techniques,” she said. When I’m on the verge of burnout, there is a feeling that I can’t continue what I’m doing and at the same time I can’t stop. I can end up just sitting at my desk vegging on unimportant Internet research. Breathing techniques help me detach and clear my mind.”

Sometimes little things can make a big difference. Thomas suggested a number of tactics that HR consultants can try:

  • Reset expectations with your clients.
  • Take time off.
  • Seek out work within your project that you enjoy doing, and do more of it.
  • Build relationships with colleagues at work.
  • Schedule time for fun to reinforce that “it’s only work” and that there is much more to life.
  • Try to limit yourself to 40 hours per week.
  • Spend time helping others, doing charity work, for instance, to get your mind off of your “other” work.
  • Make sure you take breaks during the day. Get out for lunch.

One final step that can make a huge difference: Get some help. “Hiring people to do work that I don’t have to do myself and not micromanaging or being rigid about perfection” is an important step, said Lieberman. “This is hard for many people, because they think of the cost or they think they should just do it themselves if they need to and that they can do it best.” But the time that can be freed up by turning to others for assistance can be especially valuable, she noted. “You can take the extra time to be outside, read a relaxing book, do something that you enjoy and focus on the most important tasks for your business.”

Don’t expect too much of yourself, agreed Darcy Eikenberg, a leadership and workplace coach based in Atlanta. Resist adding value everywhere, she said. “Resist the temptation to contribute to every conversation, respond to every e-mail and engage in every issue. Being involved in everything doesn’t build your brand—it fragments it. Carefully pick the two or three areas you can do more about and center your energy there. Leave the debates about everything else to others.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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