HR has a burnout problem – here’s how to solve it

Many HR professionals report feeling overworked and under-supported as the number of workplace issues they are required to resolve increases. But there are solutions out there

Man stressed while working on laptop

Over the past few years, HR leaders have become the go-to for senior executives hoping to solve some of the most difficult challenges facing their organisations. 

That means HR teams have taken the lead on a growing list of urgent issues, from negotiating hybrid working arrangements and enforcing return-to-office mandates, to addressing talent acquisition and retention in a challenging labour market

Unfortunately, they’re also feeling the effects of that demand first-hand. A recent Gartner survey revealed that 51% of CHROs have noticed an uptick in requests for support from their teams, and as many as 45% of CHROs are finding it more difficult to handle the conflicting demands on their time. 

“The volume of business demands on HR has gone up since the pandemic,” explains Mark Whittle, vice-president of Gartner’s HR practice, who notes that many of these demands are novel. “The difference between what senior leaders want and what employees want has also widened,” he adds. “For a people-pleasing business like HR, it’s uncomfortable ground.”

What’s causing the burnout problem among HR professionals?

These changes have not gone unnoticed by Chris Goulding, managing director of HR recruitment firm Wade Macdonald, either. Although HR has always had to be adaptable to meet changing organisational needs, he notes that HR workers are now expected to take a more prominent role in wider business development as well. 

I was pretty overwhelmed by constantly trying to deal with clients, dealing with people’s emotions

Combined with an increase in employee relations issues – 47% of HR professionals are spending more time dealing with employee grievances than pre-pandemic, according to a Wade Macdonald report – there’s little sign of let-up. “This is piling the pressure on HRs to adapt to new demands and develop new skills to keep up with business changes and work miracles in record time,” Goulding says.

As a result, many HR professionals are having to resort to working overtime to meet this extra workload. A recent survey of 1,000 UK workers by financial wellbeing platform Claro Wellbeing found that half of HR and recruitment professionals were completing up to five hours of additional unpaid work each week

How the extra pressure is affecting HR staff

These additional pressures have led some people in HR to reconsider their line of work. Caryl Thomas, a former HR professional who spent 19 years in the industry, decided to take a career break in 2021 after struggling to keep up with the growing list of client demands on her HR consultancy, while also grieving the deaths of her parents.

She claims that the pandemic and post-Covid period provided a great opportunity for HR to “really show its value and have the seat at the table it always deserved”. However, she adds: “It took its toll on a lot of people, including me.”

“I was pretty overwhelmed by constantly trying to deal with clients, dealing with people’s emotions and constant changes in workplace legislation,” she says. “It left me feeling burnt out.” Thomas has since moved into HR recruitment, having chosen not to return to the HR front lines.

She is not alone in feeling this way, either. “Human resources teams, especially in SMEs, are overloaded with roles and duties that would be designated to specialists in a large company,” says Jarir Mallah, HR specialist at the language learning app Ling. “Suddenly I find myself in charge of accounting and payroll. I’m the diversity adviser, HR adviser, policy director, interviewer – and the list goes on.”

Surveys show that levels of burnout within the HR profession are reaching new heights. According to a Gartner survey, 71% of HR leaders claim that burnout among HR teams is more of a challenge than pre-pandemic. Elsewhere, a report from People Management identified a similar trend, with 44% of the nearly 5,000 respondents in HR stating that they had suffered stress or mental illness as a result of their work.

“There’s a lot of fatigue among many HR professionals because they’ve been lurching from one crisis to another,” Thomas adds, pointing to the so-called great resignation, skills shortages and the cost-of-living crisis. They’re all problems that have fallen at HR’s door.

Is burnout the new normal for HR

This extra workload is having a knock-on effect on the quality of the HR function’s output too. Only 9% of HR departments are both highly efficient and highly aligned to their business’s needs, according to Gartner, and those surveyed pointed to burnout as one of the biggest obstacles to achieving this. HR also has one of the highest turnover rates of any business department.

Sophie Bryan, founder of workplace culture consultancy Ordinarily Different, believes that the increased pressure on HR is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. “The pandemic has brought about lasting changes in how companies operate, and HR professionals have a crucial role in adapting to these changes,” she says.

If we want to avoid people leaving the profession, they have to be given the right skills and training

To thrive in this “new normal”, Bryan thinks that HR professionals need to remain adaptable and proactive, especially when keeping up to date with the latest workplace regulations. “Setting boundaries and delegating tasks when necessary can help alleviate some of the strain,” she explains.

HR workers will also need to take a leaf out of their own book for training and development. “HR is expected to look after the training of others, but we’re very bad at training ourselves,” Thomas notes. “But if we want to avoid people leaving the profession, they have to be given the right skills and training to meet these challenges.”

How to help HR overcome burnout

Businesses can do more to help their HR staff adapt to new demands too. Increasing HR’s budget would be a useful recognition of the greater strategic role the function now plays in many businesses. Meanwhile, investing in HR systems and technology could help to streamline some of HR’s daily tasks. 

“HR needs to get serious about digitalisation,” Whittle says. “Investing in technology and automation will take away a lot of the drudge work in HR and allow them to focus on higher-value tasks.”

Ultimately, it’s down to businesses to help stem the burnout issue that’s becoming more prevalent in the HR function. It’s the only way that HR teams can hope to deliver on all those priorities without being pushed to breaking point.