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Many Recruiters Are on a Path to Burnout

In a hot hiring market, recruiters are feeling the burn

Recruiting isn't for everyone. The profession can be dynamic and impactful—recruiters change people's lives and can demonstrably advance an organization with key hires—but the day-to-day grind can also lead to incapacitating stress and burnout.

Right now, recruiters are working in a super-competitive hiring environment, but the challenges that come with the job exist in both candidate-driven and recessionary labor markets. They can affect all recruiters, from new entrants to the field to senior leaders, in-house corporate practitioners and third-party search consultants.

"I've experienced [burnout] more than once in my career," said Catherine Jaeger, talent acquisition manager and senior corporate recruiter at Walmart. "You're having very similar conversations every day, filling the same roles, working with the same people. Sometimes I've referred to it as Groundhog Day."

The recruiting process is very repetitive, agreed Rachelle Roberts, a senior recruiter at ICF, a management consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. "The customer always needs people, and you can fill the same role multiple times in the same year."

Recruiters' role of serving others at the expense of expressing themselves and the constant interactions with many other people are additional factors that can lead to emotional fatigue and burnout, said J.D. Wildflower, a burnout specialist, high-performance coach and founder of Holistic Success Institute in Minneapolis.

Roberts added that being the middle man between hiring managers and candidates wears recruiters down. "A lot of the time, we don't have all the information we need and we're unable to control the process," she said. "We are working for the customer, trying to manage the recruiting process plus the candidate experience and feel stuck in the middle."

What Is Burnout?

People describe burnout as feeling exhausted, bored and ineffective. "It's a hollow feeling where you feel that you just can't make a difference," said Terri Bogue, who, along with her husband Robert Bogue, writes, speaks and consults on improving workplaces, managing organizational change and developing talent. They are co-authors of Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery (SHRM, 2019).

Additional signs include not recovering from stress as easily as before and dreading work, Wildflower said.

Robert Bogue explained that personal agency—a person's ability to get things done—is at the heart of burnout. "Most people have a set of skills that they can use to do things, as well as some degree of strength to push through," he said. "They also have an amount of time that they can allocate to [meeting those demands]. Personal agency is like water in a bathtub. When the bathtub is drained by the demands placed on people, an individual is in burnout."

But burnout can occur even when external demands placed on people aren't overwhelming, he added. In these cases, burnout results from the gap between the expectations a person sets internally and the results they feel they've achieved.

"If the gap between expectations and perceived results grows too large, the tension that a person typically uses to drive himself or herself forward snaps like a rubber band, and the individual soon begins experiencing symptoms of burning out," Bogue said.

Longer-tenured and more-passionate strivers are particularly susceptible. Roberts had been recruiting for 17 years, working on different contracts for different companies, when she started to feel stuck. "I withdrew. I felt like I was bored, not challenged and not able to contribute meaningfully. I stopped going to conferences and writing articles and was just on auto-pilot," she said.

One of the more problematic aspects of burnout is that many people are hesitant to admit what they're feeling, Wildflower said. "It's like admitting failure."

She said burnout prevention starts with identifying it in yourself. "If you can identify it early on, you can work wonders to avoid it. By the time you're in deep burnout, it can take up to a year to get your groove back."

The cost of burnout to the organization may be increased turnover and lower productivity, but job-related burnout can be catastrophic to the people who suffer from it. "Burnout produces a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, two key symptoms of depression," said Clark Gaither, a physician, writer and speaker based in Goldsboro, N.C., focused on helping professionals who experience burnout. "When severe, job burnout causes individuals to disengage from clients, customers, patients, co-workers and eventually even family members. The resulting feeling is one of isolation. The incidence of depression and suicide are higher in individuals who are burned out versus those who are just overly stressed."

How to Help Yourself

There are several things that wellness and workplace culture experts and recruiting practitioners say can be done to avoid burnout. 

Manage your time. A recruiter's day is spent juggling applicants, candidates, hiring managers, e-mails, phone screens, intake meetings, queries and reports—making effective time management a critical skill to both get the job done and break up the routine.

"If I feel like I'm falling into a rut, I switch up my daily schedule," Jaeger said. "I usually go through my e-mails in the morning while I drink my coffee, make phone calls throughout the day and wrap up the day with admin work. But when I'm feeling that I need a change, I'll start with phone calls in the morning. It's not my favorite thing to do, but the change in routine helps."

Experts recommend prioritizing requisitions and tasks, setting a daily work schedule, and sticking to it.

Take breaks. Scheduling breaks throughout the workday is important for recharging, but many recruiters find this hard to do. "I've found myself many times logging in at 8 a.m. and then the next thing I know it is 6 p.m. and I never took a break and sometimes forgot to eat," Jaeger said.

She recommended taking breaks away from your desk or work area when possible. "Take a lunch break, even if it's 20 minutes to step away and move around with a walk outside. Sometimes I ask a colleague to join me and we have conversations about things outside of work," she said.

Take time off. Sometimes longer periods away from work are needed to refresh. "Even taking one day off to not think about work really helps," Jaeger said. "It's hard because recruiting is a fast-moving industry and you think that if you take time off you might miss something, but the long-term benefit of taking time off supersedes what you miss while you're off."

Set boundaries. Leave work in the office. When you're at home, focus on personal needs. "I find people in burnout are overwhelmed with too many workplace demands at the same time as feeling underwhelmed by what makes them happy," Wildflower said. "Being underwhelmed in their personal lives can make stress at work more overwhelming."

She recommended recruiters strengthen their "no" muscle. "Saying 'yes' to too many people and not taking time for themselves will lead to burnout," she said.

Jaeger said she used to spend her time off checking her phone and taking candidate calls. "That doesn't benefit you at all in the long run," she said. She has now adopted the practice of carrying one phone for work and another for personal use.

Build Yourself Up

Self-care is at the heart of preventing and recovering from burnout, according to Terri Bogue. Fundamentally, that means getting adequate sleep, eating well and exercising, but personal and professional development are also key.

"My clients often need to cultivate more time in their lives for themselves," Wildflower agreed. "Take a look at your life to see where you've been putting your needs on the back burner, then move those needs up front."

Realizing this was crucial for Roberts to change her life for the better. She decided to enroll in a 500-hour Pilates certification course "to find something fulfilling outside of work, learn something new, be challenged and meet new people. I needed something that I couldn't get from my work," she said.

Pilates allowed Roberts to grow as a person. “Developing a hobby helped me redirect my energy,” she said. “Then I was able to inject that energy back into my work.”

Recruiters can also seek to grow professionally. "Ask your manager for stretch projects, things you wouldn't normally work on that challenge you," Jaeger said. "Working on short stretch projects re-engages me and gives me a break from routine while adding to my skill set and growing my career."

What Employers Can Do

Employers can also do their part to alleviate recruiter burnout by: