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HR professionals share their advice for minimizing worker stress and boosting retention.
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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:
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:
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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