HR professionals are battling burnout too

People professionals need to take care of themselves before they handle everyone else.

We’ve all heard the proverb about how the shoemaker’s kids go barefootthat we often ignore the ones closest to us, or even ourselves, when caring for others. As the pandemic continues to turn our work and lives upside down, HR leaders would do well to remember that adage.

With people professionals scrambling to provide more mental health services to a burned-out workforce, experts say everyone in the HR department needs to prioritize taking care of themselves.

There’s something of an unspoken malady afflicting the increasingly overburdened people profession, a condition that Carla Yudhishthu, VP of people and talent at the HR consultancy Mineral, calls “compassion fatigue.” HR’s function as an emotional sounding board for employees has only intensified during the pandemic, despite the fact that HR professionals are also suffering. They are barefoot.

“Especially with Covid, all eyes were on us,” said Billie Hartless, the CHRO of the international telecommunications company Mitel.

Hartless advises HR professionals to lead by example and set boundaries between themselves and work. “Take time off,” Hartless said. “Even if you pitch a tent in your backyard and invite your kids to have a hot-dog roast or whatever. You have to take time off to rejuvenate.”

“There’s a reason why when you fly, they tell you to put your own [oxygen] mask on before trying to help others,” added Hartless.

Inhaling oxygen is sound advice, but it’s also a good idea to stop compulsively huffing news fumes out of the garbage bag that is your smartphone.

“Taking a break from the never-ending flood of news” and “really disconnecting in the evenings and on the weekends for real rest and recovery and pausing for self-care” are essential, Yudhishthu said.

It takes a Wellness Village

According to a September report from mental-health startup Total Brain, which synthesized random survey results of up to 500 workers, the risk of generalized anxiety among US workers has risen 67% since August 2021 and is up 95% since the beginning of the pandemic. Another survey of 5,000 workers, conducted by the nonprofit Mental Health America, found that burnout is pervasive, with 84% tired of the “always-on” churn that accompanies working from home.

Mimi Winsberg, the chief medical officer at the online therapy platform Brightside, said HR leaders need to find ways to go beyond virtual one-on-one meetings to earn employees’ trust.

“Make sure that you are engaging each other at a deeper level than just staring at each other over Zoom,” Winsberg said.

At Mitel, the company created a “Wellness Village,” crammed with employee resources, such as webinars where workers can vent about their struggles during the pandemic. Mineral hosted a grief workshop for employees to collectively mourn the loss of some of their most cherished pastimes that are off-limits because of the pandemic.

Not okay is the new okay

While virtual wellness gatherings can be cathartic, what’s ultimately most important is fostering an inclusive culture where it’s okay for workers to not feel okay. And that starts with company leadership.

Hartless said her company has implored its leaders to “open the door” by addressing mental health; in one example, she recalled an executive who talked about his long battle with mental health for a group of employees.

“Without trust, organizational policies are perceived as performative—policies to make the employer look good, but don’t actually help employees,” Yudhishthu said.

With burnout on the rise, Hartless said it’s imperative that companies establish boundaries so that workers feel free to ignore that 7:30 pm Slack message from the boss that really could have been a simple email sent in the morning FFS.

“Now that [workers] have the capability of being on video and audio 24/7, they felt like they always had to be on,” Hartless added. To combat that sense of unrelenting work, she said it’s important to let workers know that they can switch their cameras off during video calls, and for the folks in HR take time off to tend to their own mental health.

HR professionals need shoes, too.


This article was originally published Morning Brew on October 25, 2021. Authored by Sam Blum.