Who is looking after us? HR leaders report feeling strain from increasing employee expectations

People professionals and C-suite are facing rising demands for higher pay and working flexibility, survey finds

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A fifth (22 per cent) of HR directors and C-suite professionals are feeling ‘very stressed’ and almost three in 10 (28 per cent) feel there are too many demands on their time, research has found.

The survey by professional services consultancy Barnett Waddingham revealed that 17 per cent were unable to keep up with the pace of change at work.

At the same time, 16 per cent were uncertain what they should prioritise in their role, the survey of 302 HR directors and C-suite professionals found. 

When asked how concerned they were about business pressures, employee demands were seen to be among the most significant. Employee demands for higher pay (79 per cent), greater working flexibility (78 per cent), stronger value and purpose (77 per cent) and more hybrid working flexibility (73 per cent) were among the top-rated concerns for businesses.

Bryony Williams, founder of HR consultancy The Glass Female, told People Management it was “no surprise” that HR leaders were feeling increasingly burnt out and stressed: “The enormity of what they do covers so many other aspects of wellness now, alongside their day job.”

She noted that there was a growing number of HR professionals moving into the freelance and interim market to gain greater flexibility amid mounting workloads.

“What continues to drive this stress is not just the growing to-do list on an HR director’s desk, it is the lack of HR in the decision-making room – the gravitas, value and respect that HR requires to be seen as a pivotal member of the senior leadership of the business,” Williams said. 

“Being in the decision-making room – whether that’s management board, on the exec or part of the partnership – allows them to inform the cascade or flow of how people ultimately deliver the product, both commercially and holistically.

“If HR aren’t in the room, they are simply expected to translate the business objectives second-hand without being able to inform the design in how the humans within the business resource projects, product and delivery.”

The research further found that many respondents felt conflicted on these increasing employee demands. Half (51 per cent) said they often felt demands were unrealistic, and HR directors and C-suite leaders also said they felt the balance of power in the workplace often sits in favour of employees.

Julia Turney, partner and head of platform and benefits at Barnett Waddingham, added: “It should come as no surprise to anyone that we are now dealing with workforces who are not afraid to voice their priorities to employers, but will quickly move on if a job doesn’t suit their needs. 

“While this can make it easier for businesses to quickly understand the needs of their workforces, it is also clearly placing a lot of pressure on HR leaders who are struggling to prioritise responding to their demands.”

Williams said this may have repercussions throughout the business. “It’s increasingly difficult for HR leaders to exemplify and role model solid mental health practices when they themselves are overwhelmed and lack the support structure,” she said.

Williams added that, while some HR professionals were trained in mental health, they were not therapists or psychologists: “It is an age-old way of seeing HR as the dumping ground for anything to do with people – the hardest position to be in right now is a generalist HR role in an SME who simply don’t have the capacity or budget to be able to outsource these imperative conversations and support human needs.

“Sometimes the simplest answer is the best: check in with your HR team and ask them how they’re doing. One small micro action can make an enormous difference to HR’s day.”

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