Are You Suffering from HR Burnout? Here’s How to Tell—and What to Do About It

HR leaders are particularly susceptible to burnout at work, especially since the pandemic. Here’s how to tell if you need help.

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The Calm Team

6 min read

Employee burnout is an increasingly common phenomenon—and HR leaders are suffering more than usual. A whopping 98% of HR professionals said the pandemic has transformed their role, and 70% said 2020 was one of the most challenging years of their career. 

Nine in 10 HR professionals also said their stress levels increased in the last year as a result of the work they had to carry out. Think: conducting sudden layoffs, adopting new policies to accommodate sick and remote workers, and rehiring in the wake of the Great Resignation. Of those respondents, six out of 10 said their greatest challenge at work is overcoming emotional exhaustion. 

Because HR leaders are susceptible to burnout through the nature of their jobs, it’s important for HR professionals to spot signs of burnout early and care for themselves often.

What causes burnout for HR professionals? 

Burnout is the result of chronic stress in the workplace. In general, employees experience stress when they’re overworked and under-supported, or when they’re navigating high-pressure situations in the workplace. As an HR professional, though, you face unique challenges and demands that can lead to burnout. Here are some factors at play:

  • Repeatedly guiding other people through problems and difficulties can cause you to develop compassion fatigue.  
  • Continually putting others first at your job can lead to a poor work-life balance. 
  • It may fall on you to manage most or all of the pandemic-related disruptions to business.  
  • Conducting layoffs can feel isolating. 
  • Your team might be short-staffed, but facing more urgent recruiting and retention demands than ever before, leading to a perpetually heavy workload.  
  • Acting as the liaison between employers and employees—not to mention executing difficult decisions—can wear on you. 

How to know if you have burnout or if you’re getting close

A majority of employees (79%) in every industry are suffering from burnout in some form. Not only is burnout a common precursor to quitting, it also impacts your overall health. Employees who regularly experience burnout at work are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room

Burnout vs. depression

While the consequences of burnout can look similar to the symptoms of depression, it’s important to note that burnout and depression aren’t the same. Burnout is a state of emotional and physical depletion due to chronic workplace stress, while depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent sadness and low energy. 

Burnout can certainly lead to depression if left untreated, but in many cases you can begin to recover from burnout by removing the source of your stress. Depression, on the other hand, typically requires more intervention. If you think you might be experiencing depression, take the time to reach out to a medical professional or visit the American Psychiatric Association for guidance

To determine whether or not you’re dealing with burnout—or approaching it—take the following three steps. 

1. Consider your work performance 

Has the quality of your work declined recently? Are you losing motivation or having a tough time focusing? A decline in work performance can be the result of a number of things—from an unmanageable workload to family stressors—but it’s a good starting point to consider your burnout level. 

2. Take stock of your work satisfaction and attitude

How much do you enjoy your job? How often do you feel disinterested or detached at work? Of course, it’s normal not to love your job 100% of the time. Everyone gets frustrated and annoyed on occasion, but it’s still important to experience moments of satisfaction and joy throughout the work week. 

If you’re starting to dread your job, or if you’re feeling increasingly cynical about the work you do, that can be an indicator of burnout

3. Evaluate your overall well-being

Your health can suffer when you’re burned out. If you feel lethargic, emotionally drained, socially withdrawn, or even physically ill, consider whether or not your work could be a factor. 

How to recover from burnout as an HR professional

If you’re dealing with burnout as an HR leader, you’re not alone. It can be hard to know where to begin to get help, but don’t worry: you can start small. Here are a few helpful steps to take:

Be honest with yourself and your team

First, take some time to process what you’re going through. You may want to write down your feelings, talk to a loved one, or contact a mental health professional. Next, reach out to your team or employer. It can be intimidating to open up about your struggles, but speaking honestly is the first step to getting help. Explain how being burned out is affecting your work, then specify what you need to recover, whether it’s time off or more support with your workload. 

Prioritize personal time

You can’t recover from burnout without filling up your tank first. Make an effort to intentionally unplug and spend time away from the source of your stress, either by taking a sick day or using your PTO. Fill your time with enriching, rejuvenating activities, and don’t check emails or answer work calls.  

If you can’t afford to step away from work, try to prioritize work-life balance as best as possible. Don’t work overtime, use your time off to disconnect, and build in breaks throughout the work day to practice self-care or mindfulness

Take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically 

It’s important to implement boundaries at work to recover from burnout, but it’s also crucial to take care of yourself holistically. Work on making more time for sleep, personal hobbies, movement, and rest. 

How to prevent burnout as an HR professional

The good news is that burnout is preventable. However, it takes conscious effort—and a strong support system—to stave it off, especially as an HR leader. Your workplace culture and policies have the highest impact on your potential for burnout, but there are also a few concrete steps you can take for yourself:

Set boundaries at work

Work on modeling the behavior you encourage employees to display. That means using the PTO you earn, taking the full amount of leave you’re entitled to, and taking advantage of the benefits you promote. It’s also crucial to set boundaries, like logging off for the day at a set time or refraining from answering calls or emails during off hours. 

Adjust your expectations

Part of preventing burnout is being more realistic about your goals and responsibilities at work. Start by jotting down all the tasks you accomplish in a typical day and week, then record how much time and energy those tasks take. Be sure to include a guess as to how much of your week is dedicated to “pop-up” requests throughout each workday. If you’re regularly working overtime or always playing catch up, you may need to either shift your workload or change your expectations. 

When you know what’s realistic to achieve within a standard work week, you can cut yourself some slack instead of straining to meet benchmarks that set you up for stress or failure. 

Diversify your workday or workload

HR is a broad field. If one particular aspect of your job is causing you undue stress, see if you can switch up your responsibilities temporarily. For example, if interfacing with employees feels too overwhelming right now and you’d rather focus on administrative tasks, find out if you can offload that work to someone else, or use tools like online request forms to put boundaries around your availability. 

Ask for help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. Instead of taking on everything by yourself, be clear about what you’re capable of doing and when you need extra resources or support. 

HR burnout is a common phenomenon, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. If you’re feeling exhausted from your HR work, it’s critical to prioritize your own well-being. Not sure where to start? Download our guide to self-care for HR professionals

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