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Avoiding HR Burnout

HR Magazine, July 2003Dealing with the human side of business can take its toll. Here are some tips for making sure you don't burn out before you fade away.

HR has never been a job for stress wimps. Lately, however, the stress factor seems to be multiplied.

“HR professionals are faced with huge challenges dealing with a workforce that is disengaged and economic pressures to do more with less,” says David Rhodes, a principal and senior consultant at Towers Perrin. Each year, his company issues a report exploring a key trend in the field. It’s no coincidence that the working title for this year’s report is “Tough Times, Tougher HR.”

HR, like any profession, has a unique set of challenges and stresses. Some of the more prevalent HR stressors—appearing again and again across industries, company sizes and geographical locations—include the following:

  • “I would say the main sources of stress are layoffs, right-sizing and trying to get the most efficient use out of your talent.”—Marty Millington, senior HR manager at Toshiba America Electronic Components in San Jose, Calif.

  • “It’s not always easy to balance being an employee advocate with being accountable to business metrics.”—Mike Williams, chief people officer at Extreme Logic, Atlanta.

  • “There aren’t enough hours in the workday to accomplish everything that needs to be done.”—Tanya Hoss, benefits specialist at Maintenance Engineering, Fargo, N.D.

These subjective impressions are supported by objective data. For example, a web-based survey last year of 154 members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that two-thirds reported feeling a bit burned out, and four-fifths characterized the pace of their work as fast or very fast.

Similarly, a 2002 Towers Perrin survey of 100 HR managers found that retaining and attracting top talent were cited as their companies’ top people priorities over the next 18 to 24 months. Managers were somehow supposed to pull off this feat after a year in which 46 percent reported a drop in their HR budgets.

Clearly, some HR professionals today are experiencing too much job-related stress. Others, however, have learned to bend with the changing times.

One such person is Millington, who clearly deals well with stress—despite coping with layoffs at work. “If I have a long day,” he says, “I’ll go home and take my dogs for a walk on the beach—then I’ll process whatever happened and let it go.”

HR professionals like Millington provide living proof that a highly demanding job doesn’t have to feel highly stressful. In fact, a challenging job environment can be quite energizing under the right circumstances. Witness the fact that 86 percent of respondents to the SHRM poll said they were satisfied with their work.

The bottom line: You can manage your stress effectively, or it can manage you. Following are some of the most common stressors facing HR professionals and some tested tips on how to overcome them and relax, regroup and rejuvenate.

Bearing the News

One of the toughest challenges facing HR professionals is being the bearer of bad tidings. It’s also an increasingly common concern in this era of layoffs and benefit cutbacks.

“Obviously, this can be very stressful for employees, and I’m certainly empathetic with them,” says Millington. Having a good rapport with workers helps, he says. “I have a really good relationship with all of the employees in my company, so when it comes to having difficult conversations, I think it goes a little easier because of the connections we’ve been able to make.”

Another thing that helps is understanding the business rationale behind a layoff or cutback. “I’m caring and supportive, but I don’t personalize the fact that I lay people off,” says Millington. “I look at it from a business perspective.” This point of view helps him step outside the general angst and keep a specific focus on what he needs to do. It also helps him set the issue aside at the end of the day.

Of course, the situation can be even harder to handle when it occurs in your own backyard. Unfortunately, HR departments have not been immune to recent downsizings.

“It’s stressful to lose a job, but it can be even more stressful to keep one in the midst of a layoff,” says Jeffrey Kahn, a psychiatrist and president of WorkPsych Associates in New York. You may feel survivor’s guilt, or you may be worried that you’re next.

The important thing is to keep your perspective. If your office mates were laid off, it’s sad, but it’s not the end of the world for either you or them. If you get laid off, ditto. Blowing the situation out of proportion doesn’t help anyone, and it may keep you from taking the necessary steps to cope effectively, says Kahn.

Keeping Your Balance

As the pivot point between employees and management, many HR professionals find it difficult to balance human concerns and business interests. When the two roles start to pull you in opposite directions, the result is likely to be a lot of internal conflict, confusion and stress.

Sometimes, this bad situation is made worse by the frustration of not being able to help employees as much as you would like.

“I always want employees to feel that they can come to me with any problems they are having,” says Hoss. “Unfortunately, I don’t always have the authority to effect any change in the situation, and I sometimes feel like I’m failing the employees. I worry that the employees will begin to think no one is going to be able to help them resolve the problem, so why bring it up in the first place.”

For Hoss, clear communication aimed at managing employee expectations has helped. “I start out the conversation with employees by saying that I may not be able to fix their problems, but I’m here to listen if they need to talk,” she says.

Often, that’s enough. Of course, sometimes you may actually be able to change the situation, but other times you won’t. When that happens, says Hoss, you’ll feel better knowing that you were up-front with the employee and didn’t promise more than you could deliver.

Be realistic about what you expect of yourself. Chastising yourself for something beyond your control won’t lead to anything but more stress. At the same time, be honest about where you fall on the spectrum from people-oriented to business-oriented. Then strive to achieve a better balance between the two extremes.

“If you’re an incredibly service-motivated, feeling person, you may need to work on not getting so wrapped up in everyone’s problems that you can’t look at the situation objectively,” says Williams. “On the other hand, if you’re an incredible thinker rather than a feeler, you may need to be aware of blind spots when it comes to understanding the needs of other people.”

Doing More with Less

So much to do, so little time—it’s the nearly universal complaint of HR professionals. Staffs are shrinking, and those who remain are expected to take on more and more duties.

“Every day, I have a long list of tasks to complete, meetings to attend and e-mails and phone calls to return. Plus, there always seem to be unscheduled events that come up and need to be taken care of immediately,” says Hoss. By the time you’ve put out all these fires, you may find that the day is over, and you’re only halfway through the list.

One solution is to plan for the unplanned by leaving a chunk of your day open for the inevitable mini-crises and interruptions. It also pays to prioritize. Know which tasks really have to be done today and which can wait for tomorrow. Then get the most urgent ones done first.

“I’ve learned that I can leave work without having everything done,” says Hoss. “And I’ve also learned to ask for help when I need it.”

In addition, you might designate a particular block of time as an interruption-free zone. “If your office has a door, the answer is simple: Shut it, and lock it. Pull down the shades, and turn off the ringer on your phone,” says Robin Silverman, a consultant from Grand Forks, N.D., who conducts workshops for local HR professionals.

If you don’t have the luxury of this much privacy, Silverman suggests the next best thing: Swap desks with a co-worker in a different area to make it harder for people to find you. Or you can hide out with your laptop in an empty conference room.

Running Faster and Faster

Another source of stress is the pressure to keep up in a field that seems to be changing at the speed of light. There is a very real danger of information overload.

“All that new information is constantly being updated and thrown at you very quickly. Yet you don’t dare fall behind and decrease your value to the company or the industry,” says L. John Mason, an executive coach from Cotati, Calif.

The need to be a quick-change artist intensifies whenever there’s a merger, because you suddenly must adapt to a whole new corporate culture. “Frequently, there will be some policies and procedures that differ from one company to another, and you have to try to bring those together. Sometimes, it’s also a matter of reconciling more fundamental differences in values,” says Jennifer Graft, SPHR, vice president at the Cincinnati office of Right Management Consultants.

While fear and worry are common responses to such change, they will only serve to hold you back at a time when you need to be moving forward. Instead, cultivate an attitude of optimism. Welcome change as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then make a conscious effort to watch your thought patterns, staying alert for the kinds of fleeting, self-defeating thoughts that can be so paralyzing.

When you catch yourself having an irrationally negative thought (“I can’t do this!” or “I have to master everything this afternoon”), substitute a more realistically positive one (“This is hard, but I’ll get it eventually” or “I just have to learn one new thing each day”), experts recommend.

Dodging the Crossfire

When conflict between two people at work turns ugly, HR is apt to be caught in the crossfire. Hoss recently found herself in the middle of such a conflict.

“What made the situation so stressful for me is that it was a constant ‘he said, she said’ situation. Each of the employees at different times would come into my office and tell me what had happened, and none of the stories were ever the same,” she says. Hoss tried several tactics, including offering to sit down with the employees and serve as a mediator. Yet she continued to meet with stubborn resistance.

One of the hardest things about such situations is keeping the tension between the warring parties from seeping into your own body and mind. Hoss dealt with this by making an extra effort to do fun and relaxing things outside of the office, such as exercising and spending time with friends and family. She also listened to relaxation tapes at home, and she sometimes used 10-minute refresher tapes at work as well.

Not all HR professionals are this diligent about taking care of themselves, but they should be, says Mason, author of Guide to Stress Reduction (Celestial Arts, 2001). “Taking care of yourself requires a commitment of time and energy, but it’s well worth the effort,” he says. The payoff includes not only feeling better physically, but also being more productive at work and better able to focus.

Mason recommends a three-pronged attack: eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise and practicing a stress-management technique such as deep breathing or meditation.

Practicing Safe Stress

Then there are those people you wish would go away, but don’t. They are like the Typhoid Mary of stress, spreading anxiety and negativity wherever they go.

Dealing with these kinds of stress carriers can drain your energy and your time. The problem may be particularly acute for those in the HR field since many are drawn to the profession because they are empathetic by nature.

“I don’t think people would go into the field unless they were service-oriented,” says Williams. “Some just naturally internalize the feelings of other people. When those around them are in pain or need, they’re going to want to focus on that.”

Mason suggests constructing a psychic buffer zone. “Imagine that you have a protective cocoon surrounding you at arm’s length in every direction,” he says. Other people’s stress, anxiety and anger can’t get in, and your energy can’t leak out. “It doesn’t make you insensitive to what’s going on around you,” says Mason. “But it keeps you from getting caught up in everybody else’s drama.”

Another tactic is to shift more of the responsibility for an employee’s problems back onto the employee. Silverman suggests that you say something along these lines: “You’ve identified an important problem, and because you were hired for your skills, my guess is that you know the answer to that problem.”

Then invite the employee to come back when he or she has a workable solution to propose. This way, you keep the employee from dumping the whole burden on you. In addition, you might want to train managers to better handle interpersonal problems and complaints as they arise, so that fewer end up on your doorstep.

Keeping a Secret

The need to preserve confidentiality is another potential source of stress for many HR professionals. In theory, you may wholeheartedly endorse the concept of keeping personal or sensitive information private. In practice, though, it’s hard to keep a secret.

Finding someone else you can talk to without breaking confidentiality helps. “If there are other people in your working group that you can talk to and share your feelings with, it can make a big difference,” says Graft. If the confidentiality issue centers around a business decision—say, a forthcoming layoff, merger or acquisition—make sure you are clear on the reasons for the secrecy. The more you understand them, the easier it will be to keep the issue under lock and key, she says.

This may be fine in most instances, but what if the employee with the confidential issue is you? You may not always find it comfortable or appropriate to turn to the employee assistance program (EAP) or your co-workers.

“Especially if you’re the manager or in a small company, you may need to build a support system outside the organization,” says Ben Elliott, a consultant in Reston, Va., and past director of the Department of Justice’s EAP. That might be a former colleague with whom you’ve kept in touch or a network that you’ve formed by joining professional organizations such as SHRM.

If you don’t have a professional network already in place, now is the time to create one. HR professionals need and deserve support just like everyone else, says Elliott.

Grabbing the Reins

Identifying the stressors that affect your particular job can be a start to a less stressful day. But identification alone won’t be enough. The next step is to actually do something to make your day less stressful.

Some HR professionals may feel that the issues that cause them the most stress are also the ones they are the least able to change. That’s not a coincidence: A vast body of research has shown that the most stressful jobs tend to combine high work demands with a low degree of control. If this sounds all too familiar to you, the time has probably come to take charge of your career.

If you’re lucky enough to work for an organization that allows you considerable autonomy and lets you make meaningful decisions, this isn’t a problem. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you have lots of responsibility and little power, a change may be in order.

In this regard, other professions may have something to teach HR. Cary Cherniss, a professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University, has studied career burnout in human services professionals. The participants in his studies included mental health professionals, high school teachers, public health nurses and poverty lawyers. Cherniss says there are many parallels between these fields and HR, including “red tape, conflicts between groups, rigidity in organizations, unrealistic expectations and inadequate resources.” Therefore, he thinks the lessons learned should apply to human resource professionals as well.

Cherniss selected 25 of these people who had suffered from early career burnout and tracked them down 12 years later to find out what they were doing. One of the factors that distinguished those who stayed in human services was a desire to minimize stress.

Another key seemed to be cultivating a special interest within the job—maybe a pet project or a unique niche. These special interests afforded the professionals greater autonomy and provided an outlet for their creativity. Says Cherniss, “The projects grew over time and became a larger part of their job description. Eventually, the professionals were able to really transform their jobs and make them more interesting and meaningful.”

If you decide to try this route, be sure that your project is not only rewarding for you, but also has clear payoffs for the company.

Rekindling the Flame

If you’re no longer as fired up about work as you once were, you could be suffering from job stress. A little attention to stress management now could go a long way toward preventing total job burnout later.

There’s just one catch: “People in HR are not the easiest people to convince that they need to take care of themselves,” says executive coach Mason. “They’re so busy doing for others, and they may even feel guilty if they have to take time out for self-care. If they don’t, though, they’re not going to be as effective as they could be in helping steer their company—and their own lives—in a positive direction.”

So be as good to yourself as you are to other people. Your company will reap the benefits of a happier, healthier, less stressed-out you.

Linda Wasmer Andrews has specialized in writing about health, psychology and the mind/body connection for two decades.


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