Viewpoint: How HR Can Protect Itself from Toxic Emotions

Strategies to reduce the harm caused by toxin handling

By Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D. March 13, 2019
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This is the second in a three-part series of articles on toxic workplaces and HR's role in mitigating organizational toxicity. The first article in the series introduced research conducted by the author on HR professionals' role in handling toxic emotions at work. The third article will delve further into what HR toxin handlers do and why organizations need them.

As toxin handlers, HR professionals help employees cope with difficult situations. But the ongoing exposure to other people's toxic emotions can be difficult—even dangerous—for the HR professional. HR is generally "out front" delivering communications directly to employees. As a result, HR professionals are often "the face" of the bad news being communicated to employees on behalf of the organization. The HR practitioners in this study often felt that they were penalized—and sometimes villainized—for decisions that they did not actually make but were required to communicate. We found that, if left unchecked, this toxicity could have disastrous results for the HR professional, not only in terms of personal well-being but on the job as well.

Given that HR professionals often develop strong relationships with employees through their interactions with them over the employment life-cycle—from initial recruitment to retirement—HR professionals are deeply affected by the perception among employees that HR was somehow "to blame" or was responsible for disruptive organizational decisions. They felt unable to counter this perception as they also had to support senior leaders. This dual role is quite important to the organization but quite difficult for the HR practitioner to manage. HR is expected to perform many roles but perhaps the most difficult is the need to support management while at the same time advocating for and protecting the interests of employees. A study participant said:

We take the brunt of the anger or the dissatisfaction with things because people don't really understand that it isn't an HR decision to terminate. We simply give the information, give guidance, ensure that the agency is operating within the regulations, the laws and the guidelines, and advise based on lots of factors. But we then take the brunt of 'HR fired me', 'HR let me go', 'HR reassigned me' . . .. It really is not like that, but that's the perception.

Participants also noted that supervisors often tried to "dump" work on them. They were not sure whether this was a manipulative effort to off-load their own duties (taking advantage of HR's helping nature) or whether the supervisor simply disliked conflict or lacked the skills needed to have difficult conversations. They described a frequent need to "push back" against supervisors to make them do their own work. They sometimes felt "guilty" about not helping but also felt it was necessary to draw clear boundaries to ensure that their willingness to help was not taken advantage of, which resulted in less toxicity to the HR practitioner in many cases. They reported that this issue with supervisors was a frequent occurrence and that it served as a significant stressor for them:

HR is the only department where supervisors can move a large portion of their organic workload ... they can passively move, either by inaction or by not being very well educated in what their responsibilities really are, their workload onto HR practitioners and [try to] manipulate HR practitioners into doing more than what they are really supposed to be doing.

In addition, HR practitioners in the study reported that employees often showed up in their offices to present a problem that they had not first talked over or tried to resolve with their supervisor. They frequently had to re-direct employees back to their supervisor when employees had "jumped the gun." This also caused some feelings of guilt for not helping, but HR professionals knew it was necessary to observe the appropriate chain-of-command and to help employees learn to resolve their own conflicts whenever possible. This was noted as another frequent stressor:

I've had issues where people came right to me and I said, 'have you talked to your supervisor or manager' [and they said, 'no', Then I said 'well I would like you to go back and do that. I would like you to talk to your supervisor or manager and then come back and see me in HR'. But if you don't have that [chain of command] in place, you're going to have everybody running to HR over everything and they [the HR practitioners] cannot handle that.

Given all of this organizational toxicity and these role-related tensions, it is not surprising, then, that HR professionals are at serious risk for physical and emotional exhaustion, burnout and withdrawal. This can lead to decreased commitment and higher turnover rates. Participants also reported a negative impact on their personal relationships and home life. Some of them even sought counseling due to the excessive strain:

Over time, I think it does take a toll on you. I really feel mentally exhausted when I leave work, just completely mentally drained some days, and I have more of those days than not. I think professionally we're seen as "the bad guy." No matter what you're doing, it's hard to come to work every day and know that people think you're the "hatchet lady" ... I've had people say to me, once they meet me and get to know me, 'oh you're not evil like they say you are.'

Although several of the study's participants said they were aware of situations where HR practitioners had experienced heart attacks or strokes as a result of the personal distress caused by having to deal with toxic emotions at work, none of the participants in this study had experienced such extreme health conditions on a personal basis. They were, however, unanimous in their view that toxin handling did negatively impact their personal well-being—at least some of the time.

Constant exposure to toxic emotions also has the potential to make the toxin handler toxic as he can begin to incorporate the negative emotions into his worldview. As HR professionals begin to view the organization in a more negative light, this can start to create a negative slide in their own performance and morale.

The stress created by constant exposure can also lead to bad habits when it comes to personal decisions related to eating and drinking:

I know that when I get very stressed at work or I feel like I've absorbed all of other people's crap, I will eat chocolate or go get French Fries because that's how I deal with my feelings of being overwhelmed. Or, after a particularly bad day, I might have a glass—or a bottle—of wine. I'm not going to lie. I joke with people that you're not really an HR practitioner if you're not a drinker, because otherwise you can't get through it.

The stress and emotional exhaustion can take a toll on even the most "gung-ho" HR practitioners, forcing them to leave their organization—and sometimes even the HR profession altogether:

After a while, I didn't feel as professional anymore. I didn't feel like I was in a professional environment. I felt like it degraded me from a professional standpoint . . . so I moved on to a different functional area.

Most individuals who counsel and advise people about emotional issues have had some form of professional training to give them the skills needed to do this difficult work. For HR practitioners, though, these duties are typically just an incidental part of their "real" job. The result is that they typically lack the training needed to protect their own well-being when counseling employees about highly emotional situations. The fact that senior leaders often did not recognize the toxicity they were dealing with or the importance of this work exacerbated the toxicity for HR practitioners. Conversely, with management support and appreciation for their efforts, they reported an increased ability to deal with the toxic situations.

Recommended Individual Strategies to Reduce Harm to Personal Well-Being

Here are some recommended strategies that may be helpful in reducing the negative impact to HR professionals' personal well-being as they serve in this important role. 

1. Focus on self-care. Participants in the study recommended that HR practitioners focus on self-care to help avoid emotional exhaustion and burnout, stressing the need for toxin handlers to have "a release mechanism" so that they do not internalize the feelings and create more harm to themselves. 

Strategies suggested by the study's participants for self-care included:  

  • Keeping both physically and emotionally fit.
  • Paying close attention to the emotions and behaviors of oneself as well as others.
  • Focusing on sources of positive emotions.
  • Discussing difficult situations with a trusted confidante.
  • Focusing on eating right and getting enough sleep.
  • Finding constructive ways to deal with any remaining emotional stresses (examples suggested were to develop a hobby, participate in a professional networking group or engage in spiritual practices). 

As noted by a study participant:

It's hard to turn it off in my head but taking care of myself is something that I can control and that does help to reduce the stress….

Finding a good coach (particularly one who is also trained as a therapist) or contacting the employee assistance program's counselors was also suggested. In addition, participants noted that taking yoga and engaging in meditation practices were also useful to minimize stress. Taking time to "unplug" or take "time outs" by scheduling periodic time away from work was also highly recommended, whether through vacations, short weekend trips, or just by taking short breaks during the day (and it was suggested that each would help). Fundamentally, participants were adamant that taking care of oneself is equally as important as taking care of work-related issues and that if HR professionals do not do this, they will not be able to "stay in the game" for long.

2. Set clear boundaries and learn to say "no." Study participants reiterated time and time again the importance of setting clear boundaries when dealing with employees so that the organizational toxicity was not allowed to permeate their lives and they could stay focused on their regular HR duties. If HR practitioners do not learn to say "no," they are unable to perform many of the primary tasks of the job, likely resulting in even more toxicity and conflict with those they are trying to support:

Take a step back and remind yourself that it's not personal. It's not you, it's the situation. Maintain your professionalism and make sure the conversations remain respectful and focused on the issues rather than taking a personal turn.

The study participants also stressed the need to try to stop feeling guilty about not being able to respond to every employee's request for help. Words of true wisdom from one of the study's participants:

When HR starts being all things to all people, they're nothing to no one.

3. Develop a community of support. The study's participants suggested that HR toxin handlers find or build a community of support so that they can share their experiences with others (particularly fellow HR professionals), either in-house or through external professional networks. Expanding avenues where the practitioner can share experiences may help to diffuse some of the toxicity that would otherwise build up if not released.

4. Strengthen the partnership with the company's EAP and seek personal counseling. Given that most companies have an employee assistance program (EAP), it was also suggested that HR could partner more closely with EAP counselors and seek their advice about difficult employee situations. It was also recommended that HR practitioners seek out personal counseling early so that they minimize the long-term effects of the role as much as possible.

5. Pay close attention to work/life fit. HR professionals are often passionate and committed to their work, to the employees they serve, and to their organizations. They often take on more work that they can handle, causing them to work excessive hours and to experience high levels of stress. As a result, participants in this study strongly recommended that HR toxin handlers work hard to observe and protect a reasonable separation of professional and personal lives.

6. Change jobs or leave the organization entirely. If the role begins to create so much stress that the toxin handler feels burned out or experiences job-related health issues, participants said there was no shame in calling for a "time out" by moving to a different function within the department or leaving the organization (or the HR profession) entirely:

Dealing with so many negative situations or even toxic or negative people can definitely wear on you, so much that you might decide to leave your organization, or you may even leave the [HR] profession altogether.

Taking affirmative steps to reduce the likelihood of exhaustion and burnout will not only protect the HR toxin handler from personal harm, but it also ensures that this valuable work can be continued for the benefit of the organization.

Although the study's participants were well aware of numerous coping strategies that might be helpful, one participant wryly acknowledged the difficulty in actually putting those strategies into practice:

 Now, if I could only follow my own advice.

Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., serves as dean and professor of human resource leadership programs at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky. She is the author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal & Risk Management Professionals (SHRM, 2016) and numerous articles and book chapters about contemporary issues at the intersection of HR, leadership, employment law and ethics. Her research assistant is Chris Gray, a Ph.D. student in management with a concentration in HR leadership at Sullivan University. Gray is also HR consultant with the Department of Veterans Affairs. From 2005 to 2009, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman with two tours in Iraq. His research interests include the employment of veterans, veteran entrepreneurship and workforce studies.

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