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Viewpoint: Organizational Support for HR Professionals

A man sitting at a desk with a laptop and a cup of coffee.

From two previous articles, we know that the work of an HR professional often has unintended consequences for the person performing the work and for the organization. However, there are strategies that the HR professional and the organization can utilize to mitigate the personal and professional impact of that work.

Organizations expect HR professionals to perform work that can lead them to become toxin handlers. A toxin handler is someone who voluntarily embraces the grief, frustration, bitterness and anger that often feel systemic within any organization, according to Peter J. Frost and Sandra L. Robinson, professors at the University of British Columbia. To support these employees, organizations should ensure that resources and policies encouraging self-care are offered and utilized as frequently as needed. Below is a table demonstrating how toxin handlers and organizational leaders may incorporate self-care strategies into daily practice and daily living.

For Toxin Handlers:For Organizations Employing Toxin Handlers:
Practice self-care. Meditate, do yoga, exercise, eat a healthy diet, get sufficient sleep, etc., on a regular basis. Find what works for you and what you love to do!Provide opportunities for HR professionals to practice self-care at the workplace; develop policies that allow for designated time to participate in self-care.
Establish healthy boundaries both in and outside of the workplace in support of your health and well-being.Recognize the potential impacts of toxic emotional work, and support a culture that allows for appropriate boundary setting.
Get training on emotional intelligence and how to handle stress; seek out opportunities to build resilience and develop healthy coping skills. Provide opportunities for HR professionals to receive training on emotional intelligence, stress management and resiliency building.
Have empathy toward yourself; practice self-compassion.Practice servant leadership by putting the needs of HR professionals first and focusing on the growth and well-being of toxin handlers.
Take a break from work. Take short breaks as needed during the workday, and make use of accrued leave regularly to recharge and reset. Have appropriate policies in place for paid leave, and encourage regular use of time accrued.
Aim for work/life balance and/or work/life integration; be intentional about achieving your work and life goals, and align each in support of one another as possible. Since it's nearly impossible to avoid work and life overlapping, support HR professionals' efforts to align their goals and experiences to create the life they want.
Recognize the potential negative personal consequences of toxic emotional work; acknowledge and seek support as needed. As an organizational leader, recognize the potential negative consequences of toxic emotional work; acknowledge and provide appropriate resources and support.

 Organizational Strategies

Despite the personal impact working in HR can have on the HR professional, there is evidence that management can offer resources and strategies to reduce this impact. It is vital that leadership recognizes and supports the role of the toxin handler. Something as simple as being aware that HR performs this work can have an impact on the handler and the work they perform. In addition, organizations should support HR professionals by offering counseling and other services. It is common for the HR department to provide these support services to the workforce; however, HR professionals benefit when they are able to participate in these same activities. For example, in many organizations HR administers a well-being program encouraging employees to engage in self-care that increases resiliency and reduces burnout. Despite this, HR is often reluctant to participate in these programs, resulting in a missed opportunity for the handler and the organization. HR professionals' reluctance often stems from the desire to focus more on the organization and less on themselves. While self-care is not selfish, HR professionals can feel that way when participating in these activities.

Organizations can also provide preventive support to HR by ensuring they are equipped to handle toxic environments. Often, this may come in the form of providing formal training on problem-solving, emotional intelligence, self-care and work/life balance. HR professionals have indicated this is one of the best remedies for toxin handling. The knowledge of and ability to participate in self-care is a significant tool when it comes to reducing the personal and organizational impact of HR work.

The Big Picture

HR professionals routinely serve as toxin handlers and are working professionals who deeply care about the organization and the employees they serve. As a result of this dedication, they frequently suffer personal consequences for the work they do. This is usually because toxin handlers take their work personally and make it their own mission to ensure that employee and organizational needs are met. Toxin handling is an expected function of HR, even though it is often unrecognized as "real work" by the organization. 

The toxin handler routinely acts as a "buffer" or "cushion" for employees and the organization alike. The toxin handler attempts to reframe, listen or communicate organizational decisions. Since the communication is often uncomfortable for the employee to hear, the toxin handler is empathetic and deconstructs what the message means to the employee. In addition, the toxin handler is frequently asked to simply listen to an employee's situation, understanding they may not actually be able to resolve it. In these circumstances, the toxin handler attempts to alleviate the stress the employee and organization will experience. For HR professionals, it is not a matter of if an HR professional will handle toxic emotions; it is a matter of when.

Bottom line: Self-care is the only option for HR professionals who want to survive within the occupation. If HR professionals do not properly practice self-care, the toxic emotions they experience as part of their role are likely to be transferred to others (often family or friends) or result in career-ending burnout. It is the goal of this article and research that HR professionals will understand what it means to take care of themselves, and that organizations will better understand how to support HR professionals.

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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