The pandemic has taken its toll on the workforce, and there are few functions that are feeling the effects more than Human Resources. Many HR teams are understaffed, overwhelmed, and burned out — and it’s causing issues not only for the employees, but for organizations as a whole.
“HR teams are charged with supporting employees across business units,” said Wes Adams, founder and CEO of SV Consulting Group, where he specializes in organizational transformation, leadership development, and employee engagement. “When an HR professional burns out, that means that other employees aren’t getting the support they need to do their jobs effectively. [As a result], productivity and work quality suffer,” he cautioned.
But why has HR been hit so hard? And more importantly, what can businesses do to better support their HR departments in the months (and years) ahead? Read on for why Human Resources teams have been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic, and how companies can support their HR teams to bolster their workplace satisfaction, engagement, and success — and the health and success of the entire organization.
Why Are HR Teams So Burned Out?
There’s no denying that HR teams across the country — and across the world — are feeling overwhelmed and burned out. According to the 2021 State of People Strategy Report (SOPS) from Lattice, 42% of HR professionals surveyed cited emotional exhaustion and burnout as their top HR challenge.
There are plenty of reasons behind that exhaustion and burnout, starting with the sheer volume of responsibilities that Human Resources has been tasked with, many of them new, since the beginning of the pandemic.
“HR has been on the front lines of the pandemic since day one — and as COVID-19 has mutated, so have the roles of these professionals,” said Karla Chin, Director of Total Well-Being at employee benefits and HR consulting firm Exude. “During ‘business-as-usual,’ HR is responsible for managing the employee lifecycle on top of maintaining company policies, employee benefits,…[and other HR] functions. Now, they have been asked to help with the transition to a remote work environment and, in most HR members’ cases, deal with challenges and take on leadership roles they weren’t ever necessarily prepared for.”
All of that additional work — on top of their existing responsibilities and in the midst of a global crisis — has taken a toll. According to the SOPS report, 42% of People professionals cited an overwhelming number of projects and responsibilities as the biggest challenge facing their HR department, and 67% said that the increased and unexpected workload was a driving factor behind HR team exhaustion.
To top things off, many HR departments are navigating this tremendous workload with too few employees, further adding to the collective burnout (41% of the professionals surveyed said their department being understaffed made their HR team’s exhaustion especially challenging).
The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Making Things Harder for HR
On top of the overwhelm and burnout, HR teams are facing serious hiring and retention challenges thanks to the “Great Resignation.” As people leave their jobs in record numbers, “HR teams are overwhelmed processing exits and trying to hire new talent to fill the gaps,” Adams said. “They are under a lot of pressure to get good people in quickly.”
And while HR is responsible for hiring and retaining new talent in the face of this mass exodus, they themselves aren’t impervious to losing good people, which makes managing the team’s responsibilities all the more challenging.
“HR is not an exception to the Great Resignation,” said Marissa Lee, founder of HR consulting firm SOW Evolve. “This impacts the remaining team as they have to keep the ship afloat [with fewer employees].”
Navigating the Challenges of Remote Work
The shift to remote or hybrid work, and the flexibility it provides, has been considered a major win for employees. But it’s presented a variety of challenges for HR teams.
When COVID-19 first hit, the shift to remote or hybrid work was sudden and unexpected, and many HR teams weren’t ready for the immediate and unforeseen pivot. “With the switch to remote work being so sudden, many didn’t have the resources to support a remote or hybrid work [environment],” noted Chin.
As it stands today, for a majority of companies, that shift is permanent. According to the SOPS report, 55% of companies plan to continue with a fully remote or hybrid environment moving forward, which presents additional challenges for Human Resources.
“Remote and hybrid arrangements have made HR much more complex,” Adams said. “On the administrative side, you have people living in different states with different tax and employment laws to navigate. On the belonging [and company culture] side, you have to figure out how to fairly and equitably engage employees in a range of locations that have very different backgrounds and perspectives.”
Luckily, most companies have made huge strides in navigating remote and hybrid work, and are in a much better position today to support their remote or hybrid teams than they were in the early days of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park for HR. According to the SOPS report, HR teams cite onboarding (41%), managing employee training (34%), and hiring (33%) as their biggest hybrid-related challenges.
Plus, even though companies are better equipped for remote or hybrid operations today, much of the work to get there fell on HR’s shoulders, adding to their burnout and overwhelm.
“As the pandemic has progressed, teams have implemented better technologies and protocols to ensure work is being done effectively and efficiently,” said Chin. “That alone was a huge, unexpected undertaking that HR teams were tasked with.”
How to Better Support HR Teams
Between burnout, the Great Resignation, and the pivot to remote or hybrid work, many HR professionals are feeling like they’re at the end of their rope. Now, it’s up to organizations to step up and better support their Human Resources teams as they navigate these challenges. Here’s how.
1. Set boundaries for remote HR employees.
Human Resources teams across the board are feeling the impact of burnout, but for HR professionals who work remotely, where the lines between work and home are blurred, it can be even more challenging. That’s why it’s important for organizations to encourage their remote employees — including those in HR — to set boundaries around how much time they spend working.
“If HR teams are working from home, they need to log off just as they would in a physical office,” said Chin. “Encourage employees to establish and stick to a schedule of working hours and avoid responding during their time off.”
2. Ask them what they need.
If you want to know what your HR team needs to feel supported, the best thing you can do is ask them. “The most beneficial thing you can do is ask your HR team what they need and how they can be supported,” Chin said. “Consider holding focus groups or conducting surveys to gather ideas on how you can better support your HR teams and things that might help them from burning out.”
3. Invest in the right tools.
In order for HR teams to effectively manage their increased workload, they need the right tools. According to the SOPS report, in high-performing HR teams, 60% use performance management software, while 52% use training management software — compared to just 36% and 28%, respectively, in underperforming HR teams. And 29% of high-performing HR teams said that improving HR technology is a priority, compared to just 14% of underperforming teams. Take stock of what tools or software your HR team needs to effectively do their jobs, and then invest in those tools and software to facilitate their best work.
The past 20 months have presented unprecedented challenges to Human Resources departments everywhere, and employees are struggling as a result. If organizations want to keep their HR teams healthy, engaged, and moving forward, it’s important to take the time to understand these struggles and where they’re coming from, and then take action to address them and support their HR teams. By taking the time and effort to support your HR teams, you’ll be setting your entire organization up for success as we enter this next phase of the pandemic, whatever it may bring.