HR Careers

RfH Insights: Supporting HR Teams During Downsizing

July 14, 2022
November 7, 2023
Halah Flynn
Lattice Team

RfH Insights features actionable advice curated from Resources for Humans, Lattice’s online Slack community of 17,000+ HR and recruiting professionals. Interested in joining the conversation? Register here.

According to Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report, 42% of HR professionals cited emotional exhaustion and burnout as their top HR challenge. With a rise in layoffs and downsizing over the past quarter, it’s likely that number won’t fade, putting many People teams in a tough position. 

When HR professionals are feeling burned out, the ripple effect of stress and anxiety will inevitably surface across all parts of the organization. 

People teams are made of people too. While they may not be the ones losing their job security during a round of layoffs, they still deserve the same respect, care, and boundaries that are afforded to other members of the organization. 

We wanted to find out how People leaders make it through tough times while supporting their own mental and emotional wellbeing. So, we reached out to our RfH community members to get their best ideas, advice, and resources — here's what they said.

How Downsizing Affects HR Professionals

Deciding to downsize is hard, but being tasked with face-to-face conversations with people getting let go is even harder. Organizations often expect HR to be accountable for company-wide morale and productivity, which is a lot of pressure at a time when People teams have to deliver the terrible news of layoffs — and sometimes lose some of their own team members. 

It’s impossible to ignore that the HR workforce is largely reliant on women who have historically and culturally been expected to do emotional labor for others. 

Cynthia Patterson, an RfH Ambassador and tenured HR professional, said it’s long-past time for that expectation to change. “People Operations has evolved from personnel management of the [20th century], during which the focus was more on being the caretakers, the detail handlers, and the administrators of daily life, not dissimilar to how women's roles were at home,” she said. 

In fact, women account for more than 75% of the HR profession, but only 21% of all C-suite level positions — and only 4% are women of color. This means women lose ground and power in executive decision-making, but are still expected to be accountable to employees’ needs. It’s crucial for leaders to recognize this inequitable power dynamic, and do more to make meaningful strides for women's empowerment in the workplace. 

Regardless of gender, People teams can’t be expected to pour out from an empty cup. Leading organizations through tough times requires significant boundary-setting to maintain one’s own emotional and mental wellbeing. 

Self-Care Strategies for People Teams 

  • Lean on your community. “Reach out to your network. Now is the time to activate each other for the support, empathetic ear and laughs we need! And also — take care of YOU first — you can't fill up other's cups when yours is empty.” - Adrienne Barnard, SVP, People Operations & Experience at Mainstay and RfH Ambassador
  • Be realistic about capacity. “We're still figuring it out, but one thing that's been helpful is knowing that it is okay that we do less, and [that] we can say no. Some things that we do may look different, but we can reevaluate what tasks are essential and needed for the organization.” - Cyndel Stirland, Employee Experience Manager at Xyngular Corporation
  • Make time to decompress. “When I reached the end of my work day, I logged off — including silencing Slack and turning off work email on the phone — and walked away to spend time with my family and friends. I reconnected with hobbies and activities that I liked and had been putting aside for long hours and connected with our EAP for counseling services.” - Jana Fryman, Director of Talent Acquisition and Personnel the Shift Network

Other RfH members suggested creating an FAQ document for moments when they may not be available (emotionally or logistically) to help quickly and accurately answer questions for employees. Creating a communications plan can also help avoid pitfalls of miscommunication and reduce harm.

When HR managers are feeling overwhelmed with emotion, Patterson said it can be helpful to identify feelings that may be unproductive or unfounded. “The negative feelings that I have, the sadness and the grief that I feel, I'm gonna own that all day — and you should,” she said. “But guilt is only reserved for someone who didn't try to make something right.”  

For feelings that lead to rumination and anxiety, talking to a counselor, trusted confidante, or other HR professionals can help you find community and support without breaking workplace confidentiality. At the end of the day, remembering you’re a human being can be a North Star for communicating with candor and compassion.

“I reminded myself to be the HR person I needed [when I was laid off],” Fryman said. “[They were] so stoic and monotoned; I felt like a number. I wanted our people to know they mattered.” 

How to Support Your HR Team During Downsizing

People teams can’t do this difficult work alone, and they shouldn’t be expected to. An engaged, proactive support system of leaders and colleagues can help HR professionals navigate drastic or turbulent changes. Change management needs concerted, consistent attention from leaders across the organization.

“I've been in places where it's swept under the rug, and ones where there is as much transparency as possible as to how decisions have been made,” Fryman said. Leaders have to be accountable to the collateral damage that comes from these decisions, and to the employees who are left in the wake.

“The team that's left behind wants to know who's going to do the work,” she added. “And there's a feeling of ‘am I next?’"

What Leaders Can Do

  • Be accountable to all employees. “Having a transparent, vulnerable, comprehensive plan and message from leadership is critically important for People, teams — the whole company.” - Cynthia Patterson, RfH Ambassador, who also recommended this article as an example of what effective messaging looks like from leaders.
  • Host an all-company call. Being accessible and available to answer pressing questions with candor and compassion can help HR direct employees to leaders instead of taking all the heat themselves. 
  • Ask People teams what they need. Every team is different, especially depending on their size and the size of the organization they support. Listening to their individual needs can help them feel valued and understood. 
  • Offer to be present in difficult conversations. Taking an active role in supporting HR with off-boarding can alleviate pressure and help with delivering tough news. 

What Employees Can Do

  • Don’t say “you signed up for this.” Implying that People teams want layoffs to happen is reductive and punitive, and often leads to them feeling guilt over a decision they didn’t make.  
  • Offer to help support with workplace survivor syndrome. Managers who have the emotional capacity to help deliver messaging and resources can make a huge difference in creating a supportive workplace. 
  • Prioritize and normalize conversations about mental health. While HR leaders may be inundated with off-boarding employees, lean in to helping your own team navigate through this difficult time when possible. 

Employees are understandably hurting, but taking the pain out on HR teams who are also feeling grief may create a toxic environment of resentment and blame. The urge to apply blame is natural, but it’s helpful to remember that People teams didn’t make these decisions, they’re often just the messenger. 

True people-first cultures include everyone. For HR professionals who are used to leading conversations about wellness, morale, and engagement, it can be hard to offer yourself the same compassion and care that you give to others. But remember, being people-first doesn’t mean putting yourself second. To learn more about supporting mental wellness in the workplace, download our ebook, How to Prevent and Treat Workplace Burnout.

How is your company supporting the mental wellness of HR teams? Share your thoughts and see what others have to say by joining the Resources for Humans Slack community.