'Pandemic demands have resulted in a stressed and burnt out people profession'

Having taken on the unprecedented challenges of Covid, many HR leaders are now feeling the pressures of the new working world. So what can be done to support them? Vlatka Hlupic reports

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The Covid pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for organisations worldwide. With the world becoming more remote and hybrid, HR leaders have had to adapt to remote working and focus on employee health and safety. 

In a recent report by Sage, it was found that HR leaders are stressed (84 per cent) and burnt out (81 per cent). People Management’s recent State of HR survey revealed some similar findings.

HR professionals have been at the forefront of organisations' strategies to survive and thrive during the pandemic. However, the toll of looking after employees' health, implementing furlough schemes and managing the transition to remote working has been significant. Now, as organisations navigate a post-pandemic world of work that looks completely different to that of 2019, HR leaders must face new challenges.

The Sage survey found that 40 per cent of C-Suite executives don't think these drastic changes will slow down, so it shouldn't be surprising that 62 per cent of HR leaders are thinking of leaving the profession. In the face of this challenge, what can be done to help HR practitioners cope with the stress and burnout they are facing?

Emergent leadership

During the pandemic, the HR profession displayed behaviours typical of employees working at level 5 ‘Unbounded’, the highest level possible in the five-level emergent leadership (The Management Shift) model (see figure 1). 

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Figure 1. The emergent leadership model, The Management Shift, Vlatka Hlupic

At level 5, leaders are completely passionate about what they are doing and inspire and energise others to give exceptional performance, while employees find their life purpose in their job and put their heart and soul into it. While employees can work at this level for a short period of time to meet a specific challenge, it is unsustainable long term. The danger is that by expecting HR professionals to continually operate at level 5, more and more will become burnt out and leave the profession. In fact, the Sage survey found that 95 per cent thought HR was just too much work, which is very troubling. 

At level 4, employees are highly engaged and work at their optimum level, sustainable long term. At this level, employees feel they have a purpose and are contributing to the organisation's success. They are highly motivated and willing to put in the extra effort to ensure the organisation succeeds. The key to maintaining this level of engagement is to ensure that employees have the resources they need to do their jobs and are recognised and rewarded for their efforts.

At level 5, employees are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the organisation succeeds, which, as discussed above, is unsustainable long term. HR leaders and senior executives need to be aware of the signs of burnout – in themselves and in their employees – and take steps to prevent it from occurring.

Culture of engagement

To help HR leaders differentiate between level 4 and level 5 behaviours, they need to focus on creating a culture of engagement. This culture should be built around the values and goals of the organisation. HR leaders should focus on creating an environment where employees feel valued, respected and empowered to take decisions based on knowledge rather than their position in organisational hierarchy. As a result, the onus isn’t completely on HR teams to manage the emotional and physical load.

One way to create this culture of engagement is to encourage employees to take ownership of their work. HR leaders should provide employees with the tools they need to do their jobs and empower them to make decisions. This will help employees feel more engaged and invested in their work, which will lead to better performance and higher levels of job satisfaction.

Another way to create a culture of engagement is to recognise and reward employees for their efforts. HR leaders should regularly acknowledge and celebrate employees' achievements. This will help to reinforce the importance of their contributions to the organisation's success and encourage them to continue working at higher levels.

The demands placed on HR professionals during the pandemic were unprecedented, and it is not surprising that many are feeling stressed and burnt out. As we move forward into 2023 and beyond it is essential that HR teams take steps to differentiate between level 4 and level 5 behaviours, ensuring that employees are engaged and working at their optimum level. Businesses need to provide support and resources to help people professionals navigate the ongoing challenges and changes in the workplace, ensuring that their teams are being well taken care of while also meeting business needs. By taking these steps, we can help prevent further burnout among HR professionals and ensure that they continue to play a vital role in the organisation’s success.

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is professor of leadership and management at Hult International Business School (Ashridge) and founder and CEO of Management Shift Solutions