Handle With Care: 8 Ways HR Can Lighten Their Load

🕑 6 minutes read | Mar 23 2022 | By Becky Gendron

HR is truly having a moment, but not necessarily in a good way. Having been at the helm of a mind-blowingly volatile and complex world, it’s time to recognize what should be obvious.

HR professionals are people too.

According to a recent survey from BambooHR, 86% of HR managers have struggled with the new workplace. “We seem to forget that HR teams have the same stressors as the rest of the workforce,” says Sarah Porter-Braun, CEO of Well & Ready, which focuses on supporting parents. “When everyone else was having to manage parenting and hybrid workplaces and looking to HR for solutions, HR teams were having the same problems themselves.” Just like the quote from Ginger Rogers, HR has “had to do the same moves except backward and in high heels.”

Beyond the challenges, the rest of the organization has been going through and the pressure of trying to solve new and complicated issues, HR teams have also been taking on the load of the emotional needs of others. This behavior is called “toxin handling,” and as the recent study “Toxin Handlers and Burnout Among Human Resource Managers” by Professor Panteha Farmnesh makes clear, it is a big problem. In researching 100 HR managers in tourism and hospitality, Farmnesh found that nearly 3 out of 4 of those surveyed were toxin handlers. This includes managing the toxic emotions of others, as identified by their recurrence and draining nature. Working with others who are experiencing negative emotions, such as racial injustice, bullying, drastic changes, family conflicts, death, and more, puts a strain on the receiver, particularly if that person has high empathy or emotional intelligence.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Because toxin handlers are seen as so emotionally agile and able to support others, it is often assumed that they don’t need the same outlets. “As handlers of toxin in a company, it is assumed that they have the capability of handling such emotions” (Farmnesh). This ignorance of the needs of toxin handlers, many of whom reside in the HR department, can leave them feeling neglected and alone.

“Over time, toxin handlers may be frustrated, exhausted, and emotionally drained, which can lead to burnout… While the effectiveness of the HR departments and managers is crucial for managing toxins within the company, the provision of a proper environment for these toxin handlers is an absolute necessity to maintain their health and quality of life and further allow them to release their absorbed negative emotions at work” (Farmnesh).

Over an extended period of time, carrying this load can have seriously detrimental impacts on emotional and physical wellbeing. Behaviors like rumination, cynicism, and apathy can develop, creating somewhat of an emotional hazmat suit. Stephen Huerta, CEO of Workify and co-host of the Modern People Leader podcast shared on the recent roundtable, “HR Burnout Causes and Prevention,” We have conversations with HR leaders on a weekly basis and this is something we talk a lot about. We’ve been in a period of extended and tremendous uncertainty. I think that the reality is that things are not going to change, they’re not going to get more clear. We are going to need to continue to lead our organizations through difficult decisions and through change.”

All is not lost. There are approaches that can help HR professionals navigate this future without burning out. “I often thought I had my arms around this,” says Kim Arnold, CEO of More Than a Strategy. “Leaders need to be reminded much more than they need to be taught. Find things that have worked for you in the past or maybe learn something new to try that you haven’t tried before.”

Here are 8 approaches that can help counter-balance the strain of being a toxin handler:

  • Ensure the HR function has a seat at the executive table (not tucked under a different function or with the only non-C-Suite role). This might not be something you can change where you are now, but if you are considering making a move, looking at the impact and influence of the HR function can provide insight into how empowered the team will be to make decisions in the future.
  • Take the time to clarify roles on the team. This may seem like a clerical waste of time, but it doesn’t have to be. Setting up an OKR process, as an example, or a quarterly check-in on progress can be a good step. Another helpful step managers can take is to sit down, manager to employee, to share perspectives about what good looks like.
  • Find outside or internal groups to connect with. Lots of groups popped up during the pandemic. If you like Slack, there are groups there. LinkedIn, Facebook, even Reddit have groups that can provide support for the HR professional in need of advice.
  • Stay apprised of what’s changing by reading up (on sites like HRMorning). Good job, you!
  • Try working with a coach. There are quite a few different types of coaches out there now. From parenting coaches to HR coaches, finding a confidant who can provide an outside perspective and advice can be incredibly helpful.
  • Practice what you teach. As HR experts, we know the importance of self-care. Physical health and exercise, eating well, taking time to relax and recover are all tips we tell others. Reflect for a moment on how well you are taking care of yourself.
  • Teach HR professionals coping strategies for managing emotional strain. Programs can help people identify how stress shows up for them and proven tactics for managing these thoughts and feelings. Often, we tell people they should behave a certain way; find a program that teaches the team HOW to do it.

On this last point, there are three skills that can be invaluable in managing emotions (and have been scientifically proven to do so). These are what we call the “YMCA” of resiliency in our training program: Your Mindfulness, Compassion, and Acceptance.

With the acceleration of our understanding of neuroscience and how the brain manages stress, research has shown that mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool for reducing our emotional load. Mindfulness does not have to be a prolonged meditation. Simple techniques, like counting the corners in the room you are in or scanning your body for stress points, can help us refocus and realize how we are doing.

And when we realize how we are doing, speaking to ourselves without judgment is also critical. Self-compassion, the ability to withhold judgment, find how we are connected with others, and speak to ourselves with kindness, taps into our caring and nurturing parts of brains in a way that helps us recover more quickly. A recent study of first responders found that “greater self-compassion predicted less general psychological distress, post-traumatic stress, secondary traumatic stress, and emotional exhaustion, as well as greater resilience and life satisfaction” (McDonald et al). In fact, in their research, they found that self-compassion correlated to a 26% decrease in secondary trauma stress and cut depersonalization and emotional exhaustion in half.

Finally, accept that the current situation is going to be challenging and that we may falter. Identify what can and cannot be controlled. Stay away from “should” language and focus on what it is. Step away from toxic positivity and accept that some days are going to be hard, that perfection is unattainable and you will always do your best. This can be a challenge for toxin handlers, but accepting your own limitations and needs isn’t an admission of failure; it’s an ability to recognize when your superpowers need to recharge.

Many HR professionals started their roles because they love helping people, but this drive can also be our downfall. And this role is critical as we face the “2nd pandemic” of mental health stress. However, if their joy is gone from the work, it’s time to pause and reflect on ways in which residual emotional waste can be addressed, for the health of yourself and your organization.

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