Just when human-resources leaders started to get their heads above water following the pandemic-induced shift to remote work, many are feeling a deluge of stress all over again.

That’s because a resurgence of the coronavirus has curbed many businesses’ plans to have employees return to the office even partially.

According to a July Gartner poll of more than 70 HR leaders from across the globe, 76 percent said their staff was hesitant about returning, and about 25 percent reported they had employees who refused to come back.

About one in 10 businesses that planned to reopen their offices in the third quarter of 2021 pushed back their reopening date to later in the year, the survey showed.

For those that did reopen, some wound up closing, and 28 percent lowered the number of people allowed to return to the workplace.

The extended uncertainty is weighing on HR leaders, who already were reeling after C-suite leaders leaned on them to navigate and manage the abrupt shift to remote work in early 2020, experts say.

According to a report by Paycheck Pulse, 98 percent of HR leaders said that the pandemic had transformed their role and 70 percent said this had been one of the most challenging years of their career.

Easing the tension

“The stress levels of HR professional is high for two primary reasons,” said Dr. John Cascone, senior vice president at FlexHR, an HR consulting and outsourcing firm. “One, they do not have a pathway to help employees feel safe at work given the uncertainty of how to best mitigate the risk, and two, the HR professional is an employee and experiencing the same level of stress and concern expressed by the employees they are charged to help.”

Employees in general are facing a lot of mental challenges and everyone, including HR leaders, needs to be extremely adaptable, says Jenny Morehead, CEO of FlexHR, who lives in the Chicago area.

“It’s really important to be willing to make hard decisions in order to keep everyone healthy and continue to get the work done,” she said.

Hema Crockett and Jamie Jacobs, California-based co-authors of “Designing Exceptional Organizational Cultures: How to Develop Companies Where Employees Thrive,” say HR leaders are definitely feeling the pressure due to COVID.

“Changes to the HR role alone have increased burnout, not to mention the larger workload of hiring, performance management, creating new policies. The list goes on,” they said in a joint emailed statement.

“While mental-health awareness has significantly increased in organizations across the board, we are also seeing HR leaders that are still too stressed to take time off as tasks continue to pile up, making it difficult to prioritize themselves to avoid burnout,” the authors added.

One way to navigate disruptions caused by the Delta variant is to step up communication and be honest with employees. And don’t rush to define a solution, Crockett and Jacobs say.

“Employees would rather hear honesty than an unclear or changing solution,” they noted.

Planning (as much as possible) is key


FlexHR’s Cascone notes that the greatest challenge for HR is uncertainty about the virus and the fear employees have over the potential risk of contracting the disease at work.

Coming up with a plan for distributing information is important and can help ease the burden on HR professionals, he says.

Lunch-and-learn sessions can help, as can making sure leadership is on board with all programs. That can help alleviate the questions that can barrage­ — and burn out — an HR leader, Cascone adds.

“I think from an HR perspective, it’s important for people to focus on keeping teams and employees engaged and to change up training programs to make sure they are slower and more conducive to the employee training remotely,” added FlexHR’s Morehead.

For Eden Cheng, Singapore-based founder at the people-search website PeopleFinderFree, having a long-term remote-work policy is imperative not only for the good of the business, but also to support HR leaders who may have to tweak operations as health news changes.

Her company was initially planning to go back to the office but decided against it when the Delta variant surged.

“We have been forced to keep working remotely, which has meant that we have also had to organize extended remote-working procedures and governance models, as it now seems the return to the office may need to be delayed until the start of 2022, at the earliest,” she said.

Cheng believes other HR professionals should consider a long-term remote policy to establish protocol and avoid unnecessary last-minute juggling that can stress HR leaders trying to manage regular tasks as well as those related to the virus.

“This means being open to the idea of extending remote working,” Cheng said. “The best way to stay one step ahead of these variants, and the business interruptions that they can potentially cause, is by carrying out a thorough reassessment of [a company’s] ability to support their employees at home,” Cheng said.

It may mean more work in the short term for HR leaders, but it can provide smooth operations going forward, she adds.

“This means tapping into infrastructure and other cost savings in order to ensure that their work models remain flexible and efficient by providing staff with the tools, resources and equipment they may need for the sake of maintaining an enhanced employee experience, especially since more of these variants are forecasted,” Cheng said.

Plan ahead for resignations

One thing HR pros can do to deal with the uncertainty is to look at how they respond to resignations, which may occur at a higher pace than normal, notes Brent Messenger, the California-based vice president of public policy and community at Fiverr, which connects businesses with freelance talent.

A policy or protocol on resignations can streamline the process, removing added work and stress, he says.

“On the heels of the pandemic, combined with an already booming job market, this has the potential to hit businesses hard if they aren’t prepared to be agile and flexible with their workforce,” Messenger said.

He advises that organizations tap global remote talent, such as digital freelancers, who can help fill the gaps while full-time employees are hard to find.

Whatever steps HR leaders take to respond to the shifting work environment caused by the pandemic, they should be prepared to constantly reassess because the situation on the ground can change quickly.

But if solid policies and protocols are in place, the HR leader will be freer to deal with on-the-spot issues. This can go a long way to alleviate stress and burnout, experts say.

“I think with Delta and each variant that comes along, we will be better able to adapt and adjust to what Covid has brought all of us. I don’t think anything can be as disruptive and difficult as the initial onset of Covid,” Morehead said. “However, you just never know.”

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