A Stress Survival Guide for HR Professionals
In today’s 24/7, merging, consolidating, “do more with less” work environment, the letters “HR” could as easily stand for “Hub of Reorganization” as for “Human Resources.” In fact, it’s the intersection of the two organizational dynamics, human exchange and systemic change, that accounts for the challenge and performance pressure for the HR manager and other human resources professionals.

A person, over time, is confronted by rapidly changing requirements and responsibilities especially related to the welfare, safety and rights of others. He or she may lack sufficient control, authority or autonomy to deal with such demands. When this happens, the result is chronic stress.

Let’s begin with a list of HR-related stressors:

  1. Availability and Accountability. While HR may be a separate department, it is hardly an island on corporate waters. Company personnel believe they should have some representation through HR and that HR should be at the beck and call of all employees. Beware of HR professionals who establish a rescuer role and take every personnel problem home. Burnout is less a sign of failure and more sign of giving yourself away.

  2. Objectivity. The challenge for an effective and widely accepted HR department is to maintain some functional independence. The HR professional must also be somewhat detached from yet, also, be an objective and concerned advocate for management and employees. Problem solving (not just numbers crunching) is an important force in an organization.

  3. Multiple Roles. The HR manager/professional often plays many roles – from coach and counselor to cop and confessor. And, if that’s not enough, he or she must also be the organizational or interpersonal safety net or back up when there are breakdowns. For example, manager-supervisor-employee relations, reorganization such as a downsizing, outdated or illegal policies and prejudicial procedures, etc.

  4. Disgruntled Personnel. As outlined above, there are HR demands and responsibilities aplenty. The proverbial icing on the cake is negotiating problems with people who have grievances about a supervisor, pay, evaluation and promotion/termination issues. Certainly it can be emotionally and professionally rewarding to rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronically providing service to angry customers can all too easily result in a case of "brain strain."

  5. Transitional Glue. Especially in times of rapid or volatile change - mergers, downsizing, rapid startup and growth - the HR manager becomes a company cheerleader (or that stress confessor). He or she often helps folks sustain morale in the face of an uncertain and vulnerable future. The HR goal is to not allow the company’s "esprit de corps" to regress into an "esprit de corpse."

    The HR Manager may become the messenger, helping employees and supervisors interpret reorganization pronouncements from the management mountaintop. Sometimes the HR leader must assume the Moses mantle while the employee tribes wander for a period in the transitional desert. Anyone for the training class on "Parting Really Large Bodies of Water?"

  6. Crisis Management. The HR manager must realize that when certain crises are outside his or her sphere of "hands on" influence, he or she must resist the “solo savior syndrome” role. Believing you are the center of your corporate solar system is a potential danger because all organizational life depends on your energy source.

    When downsizing trauma evoked racial tension and threats in a federal government division - pulling a KKK Web site off the Internet and playing a Louis Farrakhan tape in public - HR called me in. As a critical incident specialist, my role is clear: to stop the vicious cycle before it turns violent and to lay the groundwork for productive conflict resolution and team building.

  7. Privacy Requirements. An ongoing challenge for the HR professional interfacing with numerous individuals, departments and senior managers is sharing critical information and upholding employees’ privacy rights.

    A specific stressor came to my attention recently: confidentiality. One particular incident involved an HR manager who was unsure of how to respond to a supervisor’s breach.

    This supervisor unprofessionally, if not illegally, shared with her employees that a colleague had been hospitalized for mental health reasons. Such a breach is like a computer virus that can contaminate everyone’s operating system and security. The HR manager’s standing as a leader was on the line, not just the supervisor’s.

  8. Ever-changing Technology and Policy. Like other corporate entities, the HR department must keep up with new software and data processing systems. Having an internal website to share key information with employees is critical. And invariably, getting started technologically takes longer than anticipated. Glitch happens!

    With policy, there are always ever-changing requirements or cultural diversity/gender issues mandated by the likes of Congress or the EPA. But let’s not overlook the rapidly changing constrictions from the corporate headquarters to field operations. All these systemic forces can undermine a sense of control for the everyday HR functioning.

  9. Training Demands. The HR team cannot possibly provide individual employee handholding for all personnel issues. Depending on company size, HR should have enough time and staff to provide classroom orientation on HR-related matters. HR managers often need to delegate the training function to subordinates. Individuals must be encouraged to do reasonable data gathering or research or else HR will be enabling inefficient, if not dysfunctional, dependence.

  10. Office Space Time. Finally, the HR manager/department must discover the elusive balance between physical access and protected space needed for productive energy. Feng Shui rules even in Corporate America. Feng Shui ("fung shway" = wind and water) is the study of environmental balance. The system studies people's relationships to their environment in order to achieve maximum harmony with spiritual forces, which influence all places.

    Departments without “closed door” time and closed meeting space for the HR team invites both productivity and morale problems, which may lead to privacy violations and anxieties amongst employees.
Here are five survival strategies:

  1. Balance Interdependence and Autonomy. The HR manager and department must project an image of operational objectivity and privacy defender while performing their overall management function. The HR professional must also develop a capacity for "detached involvement," that is, being sensitive to personnel issues and individual employee concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home - literally or emotionally - your personal/personnel boundary will start to erode.

  2. Reach Out to Specialists and Consultants. Resist the urge to be Rambo or Rambette. This involves taking things too personally, processing a significant downsizing or upgrading a computer system by yourself. Reach out for expert support such as an Employee Assistance Program counselor, especially with seriously disgruntled or dysfunctional employees. For widespread department tension consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

  3. Balance Administrative Work and Human Relating. Beware of becoming a solitary HR number cruncher who’s sequestered in an IT fortress. Don’t lose the human touch. Periodically, walk around your shop and swap stories with folks on the work floor. Bridge the gap between management and employees. Rotating different hats will also help you follow my maxim, "Fireproof your life with variety!"

  4. Encourage Independence by Setting Boundaries. These three boundary-setting strategies will enable the HR manager to successfully juggle various roles and responsibilities:

      a. Delegation. Monitoring (not micromanaging) employee performance is vital. Balance the Triple A, - Authority, Autonomy and Accountability - which are critical management and stress tools.

      b. Education. Help others not to be so dependent on your indispensable knowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures, Web site information negotiating and self-initiated employee data gathering, etc., is vital in today’s time- and task-driven environment.

      c. Separation. Generate the space-time dynamics for optimal performance of HR. Balance accessibility and boundaries with “closed door" time; design a form and function office layout that allows for vital interdependence between HR and employees. One HR department installed a dartboard on a back wall for stress relieving fun and friendly competition. Model the stress management mantra, "Giving of yourself and giving to yourself!"

  5. Maximize Team Meetings. Productive team meetings are essential to share logistically and emotionally demanding workload for the HR manager and his or her staff. Meetings should to be more than time and task-driven staffing; build in a 15-minute "wavelength" segment. Use this segment for the group to grapple with emotionally tough personnel issues - dealing with pink slips, reorganization uncertainty, turf battles with other departments, cultural diversity tensions, etc.
Let a staff member acknowledge sources of work pressure. As a group, assess the strengths and roadblocks affecting solid team coordination and cooperation. Perhaps even rotate the leadership of these meetings amongst your HR staff. Learn to wear both the team member and manager hats.

Recognizing these ten stressors and five strategic interventions will lighten the personal load while strengthening leadership hold.