It’s time to put the ‘human’ into human resources

With empathy among businesses seemingly running out, it’s up to people professionals to bring compassion back to the workplace, says David Liddle

Rewind to March 2020 and the first lockdown and you could practically smell the empathy in the air. We clapped for NHS workers, looked out for our neighbours and offered support and sympathy for parents juggling work and homeschooling. Almost a year on, however, and with a third lockdown underway, we are seeing a very different story – particularly in the workplace.

In a bid to keep the wheels turning, and in some cases to ensure their very survival, organisations appear to be piling on the pressure, while also cutting staff a lot less slack than they may have done before. Employees are cracking under the strain of their workload and the impact on mental health of yet another lockdown is beginning to take its toll. 

Working parents in particular are finding that the sympathy well is beginning to run dry. A recent TUC survey found that seven in 10 requests for furlough by working mums have been turned down. UK plc, it seems, is suffering from empathy exhaustion.

HR simply cannot allow this seeming lack of compassion to take hold. With the vaccine rollout underway and the recent government announcement that restrictions may soon begin to be lifted, there is hope that, later this year, life will return to something resembling normal. The last thing any business needs post pandemic is a workforce that is fragmented, fatigued and completely disengaged.

If there was ever a time to be led by our values, this is it. When the tills are ringing and everyone is happy, it’s not too difficult to bring the values that organisations espouse to life. But it’s when the going gets really tough that those values come into their own, acting as a beacon and shining a light on the way we should behave, interact and react with each other.

There’s no doubt that the situation is tough for managers, who are struggling to resource work and keep everything going, while also dealing with their own stresses and anxieties. But it’s vital to recognise that the conversations we have and the way we behave now will set the tone for later on, when the worst of the pandemic is behind us and the focus shifts to recovery. 

There’s a real opportunity here for HR to come into its own – coaching and supporting managers with how to manage difficult situations, have good-quality dialogue and build resilience in their teams. It’s a chance for HR to remind managers of the values the organisation holds dear, and to nudge them towards the type of behaviours and open adult-to-adult interactions the organisation wants to see.

HR also needs to press home the message that compassion isn’t something soft and fluffy that just gets rolled out when something bad has happened. Compassion needs to underpin every action and decision that managers take about their people. It’s about them really listening, putting themselves in the other person’s shoes and being able to come to a collaborative, joint decision about a set of circumstances or a problem.

The best managers are those who do this with authenticity – and who also have a strong awareness of their own needs. Compassion for others starts with self compassion. HR needs to encourage managers to take time out for themselves, to reflect, breathe and notice how they are feeling and responding – because if they can take a calm and mindful approach, they are going to be better equipped to handle other people’s problems.

HR practitioners have been lauded for the great work they did to support the organisation during the first lockdown. Now is the chance for the profession to put the human firmly back into human resources, to become employee advocates, as well as strategic partners, and to start building the transformational cultures organisations will need if they are to emerge successfully from the pandemic.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, founding president of the Institute of Organisational Dynamics and author of Transformational Culture, due to be published in autumn 2021