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The Cure for HR Burnout: Part Two


A woman sitting at a desk looking at her laptop.

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the email address at the end of this column.    

Responses to last month's column The Cure for HR Burnout have been plentiful—so much so that this column is devoted to them. Here are the thoughts, observations, experiences and stories of professionals who have dealt with HR burnout.

Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D.

Lee has over 25 years of experience as a chief human resource officer in higher education, including as CHRO for The College of William & Mary, the nation's second oldest university. He notes that the sustained nature of the pandemic has created a potential worst-case scenario for HR professionals:

"Amidst concerns about physical health, HR professionals have been tasked with developing remote-work policies in uncertain times, including managing the compounding effects of challenges with recruitment and retention due to an unstable economy. We have new work assignments and expectations without additional resources in a volatile time frame." 

Lee is proud of how the HR profession rose to the occasion. "What did we do? We responded to the call. However, like cobbler's kids without new shoes, no one was assigned to take care of the HR professionals who endured these lengthy and enduring challenges. The result has been HR burnout and HR turnover. 

"I am reminded of a mental health guru's explanation of the difference between stress and strain. Stress is a short-lived response to an immediate challenge that sometimes can be helpful, if you think about the example of deadlines and how they can push us to peak performance. However, strain is sustained stress and is almost always harmful in some way. That's where we are today."

Kenlyn Klamper, SHRM-SCP

Klamper is president of the consultancy Choose People and a former vice president of HR. "Jane's story resonates with me. I can think of exact points in my career where I felt exactly as she does, as I think most SHRM members can. It's not unusual."

Like Lee, Klamper notes that the pandemic has contributed mightily to burnout. "These are extraordinary times with unrelenting demands on HR teams," she said.

Yet Klamper also sees opportunity for HR professionals during this time of disillusionment. "I recommend job-crafting to identify what about their work suits their values, strengths and passions. It may be that their best course forward isn't in HR, but more often, their best course forward is a role that focuses on specific duties. People who are burned out as an HR team of one can light up as a benefits lead or learning and development director at a bigger organization. You don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"It also helps to understand what brought them to this career in the first place. They could have chosen any other field than HR—business, education, communication. Why was it HR? When you really know what you want from HR, you'll know whether you can find it in a different role or if it will require a different career."  

Klamper reminded readers that burnout is a biological condition. "Repeated stress physically affects both your body and your mind, limiting your ability to perform until you deal with it." She recommended two resources, the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (Ballantine, 2019) by twin sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, and David Rock's book Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (HarperCollins, 2006).

Lastly, she noted that it's helpful to remember that we are in unprecedented times. "Now more than ever, we need our HR professionals to have a clear mind and mission."

Rosemary Norton

Norton is senior director of HR Compliance strategy for the University of Utah Health. When I spoke with her, her first reaction referenced how many of her colleagues in the HR profession can relate to the concept of burnout. "I hear it all the time," she said.

Norton shared her personal challenge with HR burnout. "I've always been very people-oriented, even in high school when I worked in customer service. I thought about a career in counseling but found my place in HR. My desire to help people led me to gravitate toward employee relations.

"My burnout experience was a matter of growing frustration regarding, if you will, return on investment. I would work with employees, managers and others to help them make the right decisions. Yet they frequently acted contrary to what I recommended. Or, despite my best efforts, things just didn't change. At times, it seemed like a revolving door of the same issues or concerns each day with no end or resolution in sight. Top that off with serving as a coach, sounding board, therapist, compliance cop, detective and sometimes punching bag; it just became unsustainable. This frustration was affecting my career satisfaction and even mental health." 

What did she do to cope? 

"I came to the realization that people are going to be people and they're going to do what they are going to do. It's like the saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. 

"As an HR professional, I will do my best to protect the organization and the people in it, to ensure that the legal and ethical thing is done, and to help others to the best of my ability. Yet I've learned to accept the fact that the results may not be what I desire. However, rather than give up, I continue to strive to do the right thing.  

"Setting boundaries, for me, was key. I had to acknowledge that no matter what I did, there are going to be outcomes that I just can't control. I had to get out of the perfectionist mindset and be OK with some things not going according to plan.

"It's a bit like being simultaneously engaged and yet detached. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it helps me to do my job each day, to do the best I can, and then the results will be what they will be."

Jathan Janove, J.D., is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year" and author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). Jathan is Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching®, and faculty member, University of California San Diego HR Masters Series. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.

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