HR workers are beyond burnout

In my 20 years as a human resources leader, I’ve seen a lot: heated debates where chairs were slung over marble conference tables; a lunch where two partners almost came to blows and I, only 5 feet tall, had to stand between them; CEO replacements that have changed the entire fabric of a company.

It was nothing compared to what I have witnessed over the past two years.

As the world begins to emerge from a global health crisis – and continues to recover from the toll of social and political unrest – HR professionals have found themselves at the epicenter of a perfect storm of trouble. Employees are leaving their jobs at a record rate (in some cases via very public TikTok). Companies are struggling to retain employees, even with the introduction of benefits such as the four-day working week and the freedom to work flexible hours. Mental health issues have skyrocketed. Workers feel the pressure of spending hours in homes that aren’t designed to accommodate a full day’s work, but chafe at the in-person demands. Workplaces feel trapped in a never-ending maze of back-to-office plans, repeatedly plotting a path forward only to hit yet another hurdle.

Through it all, HR teams have never been more vital or more strained. Some 98% of HR professionals are burnt out. Is it amazing?

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As chaotic as work has been since the start of the pandemic, it would be even more chaotic without the often invisible work of HR teams. Over the past two years, they’ve been asked to do a ton of heavy lifting behind the scenes to stabilize work environments and provide refuge from the whirlwind of global uncertainty.

They have been tasked with the impossible task of seeing the future, of making calls about hybrid work and remote policies with little information.

They’ve been responsible for the happiness and well-being of workers in an age when the goals of these things are constantly changing, designing retention programs while trying to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the modern employee.

They have been de facto therapists, allaying anxieties around questions such as: Will I be confined to sitting on Zoom calls for the rest of my working life? How embarrassed should I be when my baby is running naked in the background for my co-workers to see? Am I really part of the team if I’ve never met anyone in person?

They have served as in-house nurses, ventilator checkers, infection control experts and facility planners, all while keeping abreast of the latest, ever-changing mask rules and government-mandated office protocols. (That internet joke about how the pandemic suddenly turned everyone into an epidemiologist? For HR teams, that rings a little too true.)

Before the pandemic, the lives of HR professionals were often mired in processes and compliance: for many employees, interaction with HR was limited to annual training on sexual harassment, writing long performance reviews and filling out timesheets. In many cases, HR managers were seen as administrative lords, vying with varying degrees of success for a seat at the executive table alongside colleagues who didn’t see their worth. A common question: “What does HR do here?”

Today, HR professionals are seen in a different light. Every HR manager I know has now proven to be indispensable in influencing their company’s business decisions, convincing management teams that the safety, health and well-being of employees is the most crucial point of the organization’s roadmap. These HR leaders made the right business decisions to get the right results, and in doing so, they finally found their voice. The new question around the table: “Why isn’t HR there?”

And now a lot of them just don’t have the energy.

As I write this, I can count no less than 10 HR managers I know who are on vacation in remote parts of the world to decompress from the workload and toxicity of the past two years. My own consulting practice is reserved for teams who need me to speak and guide their teams through burnout. I belong to a group of HR managers where we exchange emails about what’s going on behind the scenes at many different tech startups; at least once a week lately, I get an email with a subject line like “Time to move on”, in which someone announces they’re taking a break or leaving a company.

In my own conversations, I hear more and more people asking, “Why the hell am I working so hard?”

For many of my HR colleagues, this very direct question was a moment of deep reflection. Some go back to school to earn additional degrees, some attend three-month culinary or development boot camps, some travel mountains far and wide to reset their lives. After a long period of anticipation and growth to meet the new needs of organizations and their employees, they are making choices to finally spend time with the people they love and do the things they have always wanted to do.

Of course, the problems of the past two years have not gone away. In many ways, they are more pressing than ever, as businesses grapple with renewed urgency about how far they should try to return to their pre-pandemic arrangements. HR professionals continue to navigate their way through the fog. But I hope that with this big shakeup, we can be more intentional in the future by surrounding ourselves with like-minded, caring, and compassionate people, and leaving room for rest. Times will continue to change, but businesses can only change with them if HR teams can do their essential work at a sustainable pace.

Mai Ton is Director of Human Resources at Fabric and former Human Resources Manager at Kickstarter, White Ops, HelloSign, OneLogin, RichRelevance and Trulia.