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Viewpoint: The Impact of Working in HR

A woman sitting at a desk with a lot of papers around her.

​As an HR professional, do you ever feel physical exhaustion, fatigue, stress or headaches? Do you consider leaving the profession? If so, you are not alone. These may be symptoms of being what we call a "toxin handler": someone who voluntarily embraces the grief, frustration, bitterness and anger that often feel systemic within any organization. These symptoms are not your fault, and there are ways to mitigate them. Based largely on two recent studies, this article seeks to provide solutions to you, as an HR professional, to reduce and prevent the personal and professional consequences of being a toxin handler.

Impact of HR Work

Think of how often you are associated with the following workplace events: layoffs, complaints, mergers, conflicts between managers and employees, employees' personal situations, or undesirable news. If you are like most HR professionals, you encounter this type of work often—for some, very often. As a result, we have learned that HR professionals frequently suffer personal consequences for the work they do. The result of this can present itself physically, emotionally and mentally. This may come in the form of burnout, physical exhaustion and fatigue and can lead to the inability of these professionals to be present for their own families. Even more, some HR professionals suggest the impact of the work they do has more severe consequences and results in depression, stress and low morale.

HR professionals usually adopt this difficult work because they care about the organization and employees; however, taking it on has personal consequences and can be considered an occupational hazard, according to an HR professional who wished to remain anonymous:

I believe that this role can take a negative toll both professionally and personally for those that serve in this capacity for extended periods of time. It would seem to be human nature to get physically and emotionally fatigued when regularly attempting to neutralize toxic situations. 

HR professionals feel that the handling of emotionally charged situations is the new normal for HR, and many have become accustomed to dealing with a wide range of organizational issues that were not traditionally within their core responsibilities.

However, there is hope!

As impactful as toxin handling is, there are ways HR professionals can reduce the personal and professional influence it has. In the words of one anonymous HR professional: 

Most importantly, self-care and self-preservation. An individual who operates as a toxin handler must learn to take time away from the situation as needed in the form of breaks. They must take time to disconnect and regroup. Even participating in self-care and relaxation exercises and activities serves to reduce stress and impact from dealing with high-emotion interactions in the workplace.

HR professionals in the studies mentioned above even acknowledged they can often recognize the help they need because they offer it to others and are generally the first point of contact for employees and managers experiencing toxic workplace situations. Despite knowledge of these opportunities, however, HR generally has difficulty personally utilizing them. According to one HR expert:

The toxin handler needs to be willing to accept the same help they offer to the employees. There need to be employee assistance programs that specifically work in this area.

There are many potential forms of self-care toxin handlers may use to reduce the personal impact the work has on them. The key, according to several HR professionals we interviewed, was not so much which solution they chose, as long as they did something that worked for them. The approaches may be individualized to the person and their interests and likes. In the next article in this series, we will take a closer look at self-care for the HR professional and suggest ways the organization can provide support.

Tamara Schult, Ph.D., MPH, is a research data analyst at Veterans Health Administration in Hastings, Minn. Charles Gray, Ph.D., MBA, is an HR consultant for the Department of Veterans Affairs.


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