How Big Is HR's Burnout Problem?

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

January 20, 2023

"I am burning it at both ends of the stick day in and day out since COVID," one HR professional recently told XpertHR. "I'm exhausted. We need to take care of everyone else, but no one is taking care of us."

This HR pro is far from alone. Stress from the coronavirus pandemic created a crisis for many individuals, but some say that's been particularly true for HR. A 2022 study by WorkVivo of more than 520 HR professionals in the US and UK hammered this point home with the following findings:

  • 98% expressed feeling burned out at work in the last six months;
  • 78% are open to leaving their jobs; and
  • 71% do not feel valued in their organization.

Steve Browne, Chief People Officer at the LaRosa's Pizzeria chain and the author of two HR-related books, acknowledges hearing a lot about burnout in the profession. "Fatigue is happening everywhere," he said. "Many feel stuck because HR can be off to the side. People get worn out." And if people feel suppressed, they will leave.

Avoiding Crisis Mode

As Browne also notes, too many situations have already reached the dreaded crisis mode by the time they reach HR. "Here's the 'crap' sandwich. Fix this," he said, is often the message given to HR staff.

The work also can be isolating at times. "A lot of what we do - a serious employee health situation for example - you can't talk to co-workers about," said Browne. Finding someone you can talk to without breaking confidentiality can help.

HR departments in certain industries also have been under pressure to hire more people quickly and pay them better salaries to meet business goals while working amid an often virtual or hybrid environment. What's more, according to Browne, "90% of HR doesn't really happen in HR. It's with people managers."

But while the burnout situation is real and many HR executives are working longer hours, the good news is HR also has become viewed as more essential, in many respects, since 2020. Prior to that, access to the C-suite - let alone the CEO - could be rare for many HR professionals unless a major crisis occurred.

In the past, leaders had to beg for time before the company's full board. But there are more reports today about heads of HR sitting in board meetings as fully engaged participants.

Browne notes that he himself has gone from having less access a few years ago to running executive team meetings. "We're in the business," he said. "Don't let people put HR back in a box."

Breaking Free of Burnout

So, how can HR pros enjoy the fruits of this status and protect not only themselves, but those who report to them, from falling prey to burnout? Browne offers these tips:

  • Be intentional. Don't wait to be asked for something you want.
  • Stay performance focused - not problem focused.
  • Try to get ahead of things.
  • Be more professionally connected outside of work; and
  • Never stop engaging in hobbies you enjoy.

Also, don't just be reactive or afraid to ask for help from your team. "We have to take care of ourselves," said Browne. "If you don't do what you love, don't do it." But if someone gets to the point where they're so burnt out with HR that they're saying, "I have to get out no matter what," Browne notes that's not necessarily going to lead to something better. It's important to connect with others before things get to that point.

Additional Resources

How Your Organization Can Prevent Employee Burnout