Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Over the past two decades, HR has radically transformed from creating and enforcing policies and procedures to becoming a critical, strategic partner, overseeing a business’ most paramount asset -- its people. Before the pandemic, HR executives and departments were already “reimagin[ing] the basic tenets of organization.” Then, over a short period of time, COVID-19 ushered in at-scale, overnight changes to the way we work.
With a “shift to remote work, the dynamic reallocation of resources, and the acceleration of digitization and automation to meet changing individual and organizational needs,” HR was driving it all, helping to create adaptable, creative, collaborative talent, teams, and cultures in unprecedented times.
It's often easy for both employees and leaders alike to take HR for granted, but business leaders need to remember that HR professionals share many of the same stresses and concerns as the rest of us—especially in the time of a global pandemic. And, all through this time, they’re balancing the quickly evolving needs and interests of employees and leaders.
The Company Frontlines
Over the last year and a half, the workplace has been pushed, pulled, twisted, and tossed in response to the COVID-19 virus. As a result, we've seen millions lose their jobs in this short period, mental health benefits rise to the top of demand, and work-from-home becoming the norm. To say it's been difficult is an understatement.
However, business owners, leaders, managers, and employees aren't the only ones facing these newly emerged pressures. Chief people officers and HR professionals are on the front lines, working over time, helping organizations and employees adapt to evolving work needs.
The exhaustion, stress, and burnout are real.
With the new normal that the world (and this profession) is facing, the level of emotional stamina needed by HR today is seemingly astronomical, creating a perfect storm within the employer-employee relationship. Because of this, many HR professionals are finding themselves questioning their career choices. Why stay in a job that is certain to cause absolute emotional exhaustion (and sometimes zero appreciation)?
Let’s look at some specific challenges that HR professionals are handling.
According to a recent survey of 757 experienced and certified HR professionals, the following results emerged:
68% of respondents stated their organizations moved HR operations remotely.
88% said they were still hiring, although many at a lower rate.
35% stated that remote recruiting efforts were more complicated than in-person.
38% claimed that remotely onboarding new employees was more complex.
25% said remote interviews are not as productive as those conducted in-person.
Balance all of that with resulting exhaustion as well as decision and empathy fatigue. As Ines Gramergna, co-founder of Skylyte, told SHRM, "[i]n many ways, this crisis and pandemic have been the crisis of CHROs and HR leaders. . . . A few factors driving the additional exhaustion are cognitive overload, emotional burden and anxiety. To top it all off, many HR leaders' cognitive and emotional overloads are magnified by reduced resources."
According to Dr. Amy Dufrane, SPHR, CAE, CEO of HRCI, "’HR executives are tasked with creating a seamless remote work experience for their employees . . . Recruiting from an available applicant pool has expanded due to unemployment and the physical barriers have been removed due to more flexible remote working company policies. Likewise, hiring and remote onboarding processes have become more impersonal than before.” And all this with only 43 percent of companies offering training on how to work remotely to teams of employees. A true cog in the seamless remote experience wheel.
With workers quitting their jobs in record numbers, including those in HR, employers should rethink work culture, productivity, and adaptability, among a slew of other issues. First, however, employers need to offer support in these unprecedented stressful times for HR professionals.
Read on to learn how business leaders can champion their HR professionals during these uncertain times.
Don’t Take HR for Granted: Practical Tips for Business Leaders
Specifically, companies today are facing numerous cultural, societal, and economic pressures--from the global pandemic to racial divide to the great resignation to conflicting generational expectations. With these quickly evolving changes and expectations, HR finds itself understaffed, underfunded, and overburdened--stretched so thin to the point of breaking.
First things first. Throw out all HR staff level benchmarks (that’s right, throw them out the window--now). They were outdated prior to the pandemic, and now, for certain, they’ve moved from outdated to obsolete.
Your benchmarks no longer include the service levels needed for this “new normal.” They also don’t address the specific needs of each company and its workforce. And citing these outdated benchmarks to your HR team will only cause additional frustration. Instead, listen to the specific needs of your HR team, providing what is required for success. First up, staffing.
To set your HR departments up for success, executives must focus on staffing, budgets, internal processes and technologies, quick decision making, and realistic workloads. Staffing includes not just HR support positions, but also fully trained managers across the board, with sufficient skills in leadership and employee management.
Let’s drill down a bit. Many CFOs are still using pre-pandemic staffing benchmarks, fulfilling staffing needs for both HR professionals and support staff. However, we’re looking at a new workload post-pandemic, and the benchmarks have stayed stagnant, not evolving as they should.
For instance, leaders should explore the following to stay current with where we are today:
create a more competitive compensation and benefits structure to help stave off loss during the “great resignation;”
create and communicate (frequently) COVID-19 responses and workplace updates, ensuring that employees understand the company’s safety measures and mental health resources;
implementing innovative systems, solutions and employee experiences;
update and communicate (again, frequently) your DEI and racial equality programs; and
anticipate and plan for growth both nationally and internationally, as necessary, focusing on hiring expectations and needs in a post-COVID world.
As leaders plan for the above list (and then some), they should have a more realistic expectation of how many HR professionals must be hired, bringing their staffing benchmarks into the future of work, which is now.
Without these resources and changes in approach, HR professionals face extreme burnout, questioning whether their career paths are even worth it. Today, the workload is significant, and the more attentive and supportive everybody is, the better it will be for the whole.
Next, holistic support for HR professionals
Let’s look at some additional ways to support your HR team.
With employee coaching and training exploding during the global pandemic, don’t forget to support training programs for HR as well as managers. Hiring qualified, trained managers would alleviate much of HR’s burden. For example, if a manager is trained on communication, listening, and empathy skills, then managers can take some of the “front line” work off of HR, addressing and resolving workplace conflicts before ringing HR.
And it’s not just established companies. Startups need to support their HR teams as well. From focusing on remote work to mental health issues to cancel culture to diversity, equity, and inclusion, business leaders must focus on these and other foundational blocks, allowing HR to succeed in being the organizational glue.
And while we’re at it, also make sure your HR team—from executives to assistants—has access to expanded mental health resources, enabling them to curb their own stress, anxiety, and overload. And corporate leaders aren’t off the hook. Be sure to acknowledge, recognize, and praise your HR team. After all, they’re helping your company hold it all together.
However, let’s admit it. All the resources in the world won’t help unless they’re used. With most HR employees focusing on everyone and everything else, they often tend to put themselves on the back burner. But, these professionals need to prioritize their own mental and physical health to be truly effective in the workplace.
Let’s turn to some practical steps that HR professionals can take with their own well-being in mind.
HR – I’m Looking at You: Practical Tips for Human Resources Professionals
During this time, and moving forward, HR professionals need to focus on themselves—often hard to manage when you have so much on your to-do list. However, as we’ve learned over the last year, self-care is vital.
And when I’m talking about self-care, I’m not necessarily referring to mani/pedis or a round of golf (although I encourage both!). Instead, I’m talking about prioritizing both your mental and physical health in a time of high uncertainty and rapid change.
Here are some best practices for HR professionals to follow, especially as we round out 2021.
Acknowledge exhaustion and stress. Establish a baseline of where you are.
Establish company policies encouraging people to take breaks during the day as we enter this new normal. Then, follow these policies for yourself as well.
Don’t be afraid to take your PTO, especially if burnout is creeping in.
It’s ok not to be perfect. Ask for help when you need it.
Plan time for yourself first thing in the morning, before the day takes a hold of you.
Get moving. Physical activity like taking a walk can really help with stress and overwhelm.
Don’t bite off a self-care goal all at once. Take small steps.
In an ever-changing workplace, employers cannot afford to lose critical employees—especially their HR teams. That seems to be a given, but companies must develop strategic plans to support HR wholly, including direct support from the executive team.
These strategic plans not only include numerous well-being resources and appropriate staffing numbers, but they also develop a clear path for confronting the new and expanded work requirements in a post-pandemic world, giving HR the tools and resources to be successful. And when HR is successful, the company shares in that success as well -- boosting the organization’s bottom line.
From March 2020 until now, HR professionals have been the unsung heroes, helping businesses keep it all together while adapting to a new way of working. And HR will continue to be critical in organizational development and agility. Check in on your HR teams. Give them a gentle hug – virtually. After all, they’ll be the ones that see us through.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
I would love to hear your thoughts or your personal story. How are you supporting your HR team? What best practices are you following, helping you keep your own mental and physical health in check?
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