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While the last year has been rough on everybody, it’s been an especially wild time for human-resource professionals.

They’ve had to respond, often on the fly, to so many new challenges: The Covid-19 pandemic. Transforming an in-person workforce to a virtual one practically overnight. Revising and invigorating diversity, equity and inclusion programs to respond to racial and social injustice incidents. Helping keep essential workers safe and productive on the job.

That just for starters.

So it’s no wonder that 90 percent of human resources professionals said in a February 2021 survey that their stress has increased in the last year, with almost half (47 percent) admitting that their stress levels have increased “dramatically.”

A majority of the respondents also said the two biggest HR challenges facing their organization are improving employee morale and engagement in remote and hybrid workplaces as well as managing this new way of working.

Another survey of HR leaders and employees in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia found that 71 percent said 2020 was the most stressful year in their career.

“While things have changed, the first few months felt like one crisis after another,” said Chad Sorenson, president of the HR Florida State Council, the state affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and president of Adaptive HR Solutions, based in St. John’s, Florida.

“HR professionals can usually deal with whatever is thrown our way [and] 2020 was no exception. I got through it by talking with others,” he said, noting that he and his colleagues established “Quarantini Tuesdays” to create time to destress, relax and swap stories and ideas.

“When you realize you are not the only one going through these issues, you can empathize with others, Sorenson said. “Additionally, I forced some downtime for myself. There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done.”

For the people whose business it is to take care of people, the lessons learned over the last year have been valuable.

Giving until it hurts

“Most people don’t go into HR because it’s prestigious. They enter HR because they want to help people,” said Andrew Shatté, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium, a Boston-based company that provides tech solutions for building resilient workforces.

“They have … a caregiver personality,” he added. “Their way of expressing resilience and managing stress is by helping others. The greatest vulnerability of that type is that they have the tendency to give of themselves until it hurts.”

Expectations have never been higher, he says.

“The success of the organization has been judged based on how well this has been handled, which puts a lot of pressure and stress on HR,” Shatté said. “They have been the tip of the spear over the last 15 months or so — and HR is rarely that.”

During a prolonged crisis period, there’s only so many challenges you can take before things go south, notes Jeff Gorter, vice president of crisis response services at R3 Continuum, a workplace behavioral-health company based in Minneapolis.

HR professionals experience employee interactions “in a way that other managers and leaders in an organization may [only see] bits and pieces of,” Gorter said. While others can “step away” from the stressful situation because it’s not central to what they are doing, “for HR, that’s the heart and soul of it.”

Ongoing stresses reduce people’s “adaptive capacity,” which is the ability “to respond with a purposeful, positive regard to an unexpected shock or challenge,” he added. HR professionals often have suffered from “compassion fatigue” as their emotional resources are drawn down.

Fighting burnout

So how can folks in HR people combat the many personal and professional blows the last year has dealt?

 

“Self-care is critical,” advised Sorenson of the HR Florida State Council. “Just like they say at the beginning of every flight, put your own mask on before helping others. You can’t help others if you are passed out — it’s the same at work. If you don’t allocate some ‘me time’ each day or week, then you will likely burn out.”

Sorenson also advises HR professionals to connect with peers through online groups and professional organizations like SHRM to stave off burn out and to recognize current opportunities to advance HR’s core missions.

“Many people and business leaders are turning to HR for answers. We have to start by making sure we are in a position to give them answers,” he said. “HR professionals are resilient. We have handled this crisis and we will handle the next. We must remember that we do not have to do it alone.”

It’s also important to “take it one day at a time,” he added. “We can’t fix everything today, so make a plan, deal with what you can and the rest will be here tomorrow.”

Angela Zausch, a health and well-being consultant for the Marsh & McLennan Agency in New Berlin, Wisconsin, noted the “million different ways that we can be connected,” referring to the many digital tools that can make it hard to take a step back from work.

Carving out time for ‘something beautiful’

Taking time off from always being on requires personal discipline to respect the schedule you’ve decided upon. Try setting up standard working hours, blocking off time to tackle particular tasks and establishing virtual office hours to meet both your employees needs as well as your own, Zausch recommends.

For Elisabeth Duncan, director of HR at Evive, a digital engagement and communication technology company based in Chicago, surviving the last year has meant taking some of the wellness advice regularly shared with employees.

“I may do a virtual exercise class, take classes through our [learning management system] for career growth or take advantage of our mental health days when we are asked not to work or check emails — avoiding burnout,” she said. “I also make sure to schedule regular health screenings and when I am not working, I disconnect and focus my time at home. It gives me peace of mind I need during challenging times and refreshes me for the next day.”

Shatté of meQuilibrium also recommends carving out half an hour before and after the workday to relax and meditate, doing stretches and exercises periodically throughout the day, planning “something beautiful” to look forward to, like a good meal, watching the sun set or listening to music and spending a few minutes each day to reflect on what’s going on in your life and what you are grateful for.

“HR leaders have long been talking about the importance of the holistic health and well-being of their employees,” he noted. “They’ve long believed in the importance of resilience, mental health and preventing mental illness. But for the first time, the global pandemic has brought these issues to the attention of corporate C-suites. … This is a pivotal moment in corporate, organizational and human history. Those companies that take care of their people now will be judged to be on the right side of history.”

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