“Most HR professionals get overwhelmed with stress” but why is this and what can be done?

June 6, 2018

People Management magazine have released the results of their first HR and L&D ‘satisfaction survey’, which asked more than 600 individuals working in HR about their working lives. There were a number of interesting statistics thrown up by the survey but something which resonated with me particularly was that the level of stress felt by HR professionals seeming to be particularly high.

44% of respondents felt work was detrimental to their mental health, with a significant majority feeling overwhelmed by work at least once every month. The survey doesn’t particularly draw out more detail on the reasons for this however based on my own experience and on the numerous conversations I have with HR professionals, I think a combination of the nature of both the HR function and also of the typical HR professional (if there is such a thing) combine to exacerbate stress at work and the ‘overwhelmed’ emotion respondents to the survey are feeling.

HR can be a lonely place to work in an organisation. HR is not an income-generating function; it isn’t central to whatever the purpose of the organisation is. HR are often privy to (and blamed for) management decisions which affect employees and are also often affected more by office politics than other employees. HR see the worst outcomes from office politics, and the most negative aspects of employment, often dealing with horrendous and stressful situations.

Just speaking personally, I’ve been involved in situations involving very stressed employees, who have been subject to bullying, harassment (sexual and otherwise), very severe mental health problems, conflicts between colleagues, employees with significant personal problems affecting their work, and many many other difficult situations. As an HR professional you might be supporting these individuals, supporting their managers in how to deal with these various challenges, and very often just listening.

As well as these more serious problems, HR professionals who develop good relationships with operational managers in their organisation frequently find these managers ‘offloading’ their various issues and complaints.

But as an HR professional, other than to your immediate team (and if you are senior, probably not to them either), you can’t offload in the workplace yourself. You are absorbing all of this stress, tension and difficulty from everyone else, without being able to share that burden and it can take an enormous toll. Feeling overwhelmed and extremely stressed as an HR professional is frequently not about a high workload or pressurised deadlines, it’s about a level of emotional burden which is different from that of other professions.

And in my non-scientific opinion, most HR professionals go into HR at least partly because they are caring individuals who want to make a difference. Wanting to make a difference is something I hear a lot and being keen to have a positive impact and caring a lot about people, whilst a great combination in many ways, can have the adverse effect of resulting in an individual absorbing a lot of everyone else’s stresses and frustrations as well as feeling their own.

But what’s the answer? I think if anyone is feeling that level of stress from work, it’s worth having a fundamental review of working life. It’s difficult to do this while on the treadmill, but on holiday can be a really good time to get some headspace and reflect, or even just taking a couple of days annual leave. Think about what elements of your work are causing you stress and about what your long-term plans are. Do you want (or need) to stay where you are; is it possible to make adjustments to your current job which will solve or at least reduce the problem? Think about asking for flexible working, and explore whether you are spending too much of your working time absorbing stress from others.

Do your long-term ambitions lie elsewhere? If that’s the case, explore carefully whether what you want long-term will achieve what you are looking for from work in terms of reducing stress, and if you think it will, start taking steps towards getting there. Even if your long-term goal might be months or years away, feeling like you are taking some control and taking even tiny steps towards getting there can significantly reduce the mental impact of a stressful current working environment.