It’s been a tough few years for HR. Back in 2020, they were tasked with managing the sudden shift from in-office to remote work, almost literally overnight.
On top of that, they were also responsible for keeping frontline employees safe and keeping up with rapidly changing rules and regulations.
And the difficulties didn’t stop once the lockdowns lifted. Even now, the pandemic’s effects are still lingering, with many HR teams facing the brunt of employees’ resentment over return-to-office policies.
Plus, the tumultuous economic climate of the past few years has resulted in layoffs for many organisations — with HR as the bearer of bad news. At the same time, hiring shortages and the Great Resignation have seen HR fighting tooth and nail to attract and retain talent.
Given all of this, it’s no surprise that HR teams are facing burnout at an alarming rate.
We’ve put together this guide to help HR teams banish burnout in 2024 — so they can continue to support their organisations through whatever challenges the next 12 months bring.
What is burnout, anyway?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of HR burnout in particular, it’s probably a good idea to talk about what burnout actually is. It’s a word that we’ve heard quite a bit over the last few years — which is understandable. But when words are thrown around a lot, their actual definition can get a bit muddy.
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome caused by ongoing unmanaged workplace stress. There are three main signs to look out for:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Feeling mentally distant from your job, or feeling negative or cynical about it
- Reduced professional efficacy
In other words, if you’re constantly tired, dread going to work, and feel like your performance has dropped, you might be suffering from burnout.
Why are HR teams at risk of burnout?
Anyone can suffer from burnout. In fact, a study from 2023 found that more than half (57%) of US workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, with this number rising to 75% among female employees.
But HR teams are particularly vulnerable because of the unique place they hold in the organisation. They play a crucial role in looking after the well-being of the workforce as a whole — but their own well-being can often go neglected.
And it doesn’t help that HR teams are frequently understaffed and overworked. This constant need to achieve more with less only adds to the pressure that HR teams are under — and makes burnout a likely eventuality.
Here are some other reasons that HR teams might be particularly at risk:
- HR teams act as a middleman between employers and employees, meaning they’re often the scapegoat for unpopular decisions. And facing criticism from disgruntled employees takes its toll over time.
- HR teams have taken on extra duties after the pandemic, like supporting employees as they adapt to the hybrid workplace. In 2023, 51% of HR leaders said they receive more requests for support now than before 2020.
- HR teams have to repeatedly guide other employees through problems and difficult circumstances. Over time, this can lead to compassion fatigue.
- HR teams are working too much: a People Management survey from 2023 found that 50% of HR professionals are putting in up to five extra, unpaid hours every week. This means many have a poor work-life balance, leading to exhaustion and stress.
The impact of HR burnout on an organisation
HR professionals play a vital part in ensuring the health and well-being of their organisations as a whole. Making sure everyone feels good, valued and happy in the workplace is a huge part of their role.
But they can’t do this if they’re suffering themselves. That means that HR burnout can have a disastrous impact on your organisational culture. Over time, this could lead to problems with talent attraction, retention and employee engagement.
That’s not to mention the operational problems you’re bound to encounter if your HR team is struggling to keep its head above water.
Do you have an HR burnout problem? Warning signs to look out for
The first step in solving your HR burnout problem is realising that you have one. Here are some of the things that HR leaders can look out for in their teams — and in their own behaviour.
- More sick leave: Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day than other employees. Increased absenteeism on your HR team could indicate a serious problem.
- Increased HR turnover: Employees suffering from burnout are 2.6x more likely to look for a new job. If you’re seeing a lot of churn on your HR team, it could be due to burnout.
- HR team seems disconnected: Burned-out employees tend to lack both confidence in their work, and the motivation to do anything about it. HR managers should be aware of this and ensure they’re checking in on anyone they haven’t heard from in a while.
- HR team working long hours: HR burnout often comes down to one simple thing: too much work. If you notice members of your team are in their office long after everyone else has left (or sending Slack messages well into the evening), they’re probably at risk of burnout.
How to combat HR burnout in 2024
HR burnout is usually a chronic problem that develops slowly over time — so it can’t be fixed overnight. That said, there are some things that HR professionals and leaders can do to try and kick burnout to the kerb in 2024.
HR professionals can only help other employees if they’re looking after their own mental health. Here are some things you can do to keep your mental health in check and avoid burning out:
- Don’t be a superhero: Remember, HR professionals are human too. If you’re struggling at work, talk to your manager and your wider team. Sometimes, just telling someone that you’re having a hard time can make a big difference. Plus, there may be extra support or resources they can provide that you weren’t even aware of.
- Prioritise work-life balance: Everyone needs a break — and when work bleeds over into your personal time, burnout is almost inevitable. That’s why it’s vital that you take active steps to protect your work-life balance. That might mean avoiding unnecessary overtime and making sure you actually log off at the end of the day.
- Set boundaries: HR teams often spend a lot of their time juggling ad-hoc requests from employees — leading to stress and overwork. It’s important to be really clear about exactly what is and isn’t within the scope of your role. Remember, although you might feel bad for turning down a request, you’ll be serving your employer better in the long run.
- Keep work at work: If you work in an office, don’t continue working when you get home. And if you work from home, keep it to one room or area so it’s separate from the rest of your life. Also, delete those work apps (looking at you, Slack and email) from your phone — or at least turn off your notifications when you’re not on the clock.
- Take care of yourself first: It may sound obvious, but taking care of your mental, physical and emotional well-being is one of the best things you can do to combat burnout. That might mean getting a bit more exercise, eating balanced meals and making time for self-care. At the very least, make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep and going outside for a bit of fresh air every day.
For leaders and managers
Of course, combatting burnout isn’t just an individual task. Here are some of the things that HR leaders and managers can do to support their teams and help them steer clear of burnout in 2024:
- Adjust your expectations: According to a 2023 Gallup survey, employees are 70% less likely to report burnout when they have time to get all of their work done. The first step to combatting burnout is figuring out whether your expectations are realistic. Remember, you’ll get more value out of your team in the long run if they’re not running on empty.
- Celebrate wins and achievements: The same Gallup poll found that people suffering from burnout were 13% less confident in their work. That means HR leaders should be working to create a culture of peer recognition that encourages employees to celebrate their colleagues’ achievements. While this might not be an overnight fix, it can be effective in shifting employee mindsets over time.
- Model good work-life balance: It doesn’t matter how much you preach about the importance of work-life balance if your actions are telling a different story. HR leaders should lead by example by taking time off, using benefits that are offered, and being sure to (actually) log off at the end of the day.
HR teams need to put on their own oxygen mask first
If you’ve ever taken a commercial flight, you’ll have heard the standard safety announcement. No, not the part about the emergency exits (here, here and here) or the seatbelts, but this part:
Parents travelling with young children should put their own oxygen masks on before helping others.
This might sound cruel, but it’s the only way to ensure that everyone is kept safe. After all, you can’t help little Sally with her mask if you’ve already passed out.
And it’s the same with HR: you can’t support your employees and ensure their well-being if you’re barely hanging on yourself.
As we approach the end of the year, we hope HR teams will take some well-deserved time off to rest and recharge — and then come back ready to keep looking after themselves in 2024.