Avoiding Burnout When You Work in HR
If you work in HR, you know that employee burnout remains pervasive. You also know that the task of supporting overly stressed employees often falls on your shoulders. But you’re exhausted too. Burnout isn’t just a problem you have to help others solve; you also have to solve it for yourself. Here are seven ways to do that.
First and foremost, set boundaries. You cannot possibly be all things to all your people, available at all times no matter the cost. That’s not your job. More to the point, your job is not the supreme ruler of your time. Having a job means that you’ve committed to using some of your time to complete a certain amount of work, but you should still think of that time as yours. After all, it’s your life, your energy, your health. Don’t feel bad about giving time to your needs just because you’re working. The mindset that you can never prioritize your needs while on “company time” is an unhealthy one.
Place boundaries around both the time during which you work and what you spend your time doing while working. If you say that you’re done with work at 6 p.m., don’t do any work after 6 p.m. Emails and Slack messages can wait until the next workday. If people at work need to be able to reach you in an emergency, establish a specific way for that to happen (e.g., a call or text to your cell) and make sure the people who may contact you know what qualifies as an emergency and what doesn’t.
You can set boundaries during the workday by delegating tasks that don’t need to be done by you. HR is a big job for one person or even one department. Not every personnel issue even should be handled by you. Managers and department heads should be able to handle a lot of those issues themselves and only come to you for help if it’s actually needed. If they are bringing you so many small problems that you don’t have time to resolve the big ones, you may need to set different expectations or train managers to resolve certain issues themselves. If you’re having to manage employees for them, they’re not doing their jobs (and may need to be developed or replaced).
Know What You Can and Cannot Control
In HR, we often feel responsible for everything related to employees. If there’s an issue, it’s on us to address it. A problem? We own the solution. Something not improving? We’re at fault. This belief that we are responsible for all the things causes stress to mount and leads to burnout. It also isn’t true.
We can’t be responsible for what we can’t control, and so much that happens in the workplace is simply out of our control. It’s vital—both for our work and our mental health—for us to know what is and isn’t in our power to change. If employees are quitting as a result of ineffective workplace policies, and you have purview over those policies, you can probably do something about this attrition. But if they’re quitting because there are better opportunities for them that your organization can’t match, there may be nothing you can do. Spending time trying to solve unsolvable problems isn’t going to have a good return. Or, as the old saying goes, if there is no solution, there is no problem.
Implement Clear and Simple Policies and Practices
The more ambiguous or complex your workplace policies and practices are, the more questions people will have about what they mean or require. If you find that your people often come to you asking what they’re supposed to do in a given situation, look at what you can do to answer their questions proactively. Do you have an employee handbook? Standardized practices for managers? Granted, some employees aren’t going to read any policy documents you give them, but in general, you can save yourself (and others) a lot of time by defining policies and practices so that they are clear, accessible, and easy to follow. Accordingly, you should ensure that leaders are aware of where the handbooks, policies, and guidelines reside so that employees may self-serve whenever possible.
Train Your Colleagues
Being the only one who can do a certain essential task may be good for your job security, but it isn’t good for your health. If no one else can do what you do, you can’t truly get away or be guaranteed to focus on one task to the exclusion of all others. People can only cover for you if they have the knowledge and skills to complete the tasks you need to be covered.
Realistically, you can’t plan for every contingency, but teaching colleagues the skills and knowledge they’d most likely need when covering for you increases the likelihood that they’ll be able to handle whatever arises while you’re away or focused on an urgent project.
Take Time Off
Speaking of getting away, take time off. You need a break from work as much as anyone—maybe more so—and you don’t need to justify it. You don’t have to feel sick or especially overwhelmed or have something special planned. Breaks from work are good for you, period. If you feel the need to justify a break from work, take time off to set a good example to everyone else that they should be taking time off too.
When employees see leaders in their organization taking ample time away from work, they feel more confident taking time off themselves. That helps save those employees from burnout, which in turn saves their leaders’ time.
Connect with Other HR Professionals
Working in HR can be a lonely profession, especially if you’re a department of one. When you’re in HR, friendships at work range from tricky to ill-advised. You may not have anyone at work you can really open up to or who appreciates the challenges of your job. Fortunately, there’s an active community of HR professionals online who are more than happy to share ideas, answer questions, or just listen. You can find them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and elsewhere by searching #hrcommunity or #hr. They’re a friendly and chatty bunch, eager to converse about the latest trends, specific pain points, and the generally daunting challenges of working in HR.
Consider following a few HR practitioners, participating in a conversation, or just watching from the sidelines until you feel more comfortable. It’s not quite the same as having a close friend at work, but what it lacks in close proximity, it makes up for in shared experience.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” Special Agent Dale Cooper says to Sherriff Harry S. Truman in the television series Twin Peaks. “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.”
The present doesn’t have to be extravagant. Cooper’s examples include a catnap in one’s office chair and taking a few minutes to enjoy a nice hot cup of coffee. Yours might be a 20-minute walk to get some fresh air and Vitamin D. The point is to be not just reasonable, but generous with yourself every day. The work we do in HR is stressful, emotionally taxing, and tiring. We spend our days supporting others in difficult situations. Our job is to give time, comfort, and care to others. It’s important to give those things to ourselves too.