HR professionals aren't just burnt out, they have compassion fatigue

By Aimee Gindin, MSCP, Head of Marketing and Strategy at Torchlight

Human resource professionals have been the invisible first responders for nearly two years, supporting employees through crisis after crisis. From updating corporate policies to changing wellbeing strategies and adopting new benefits, HR teams are now thrust into careers that demand much more emotional labor. While the effects of the pandemic have left all employees feeling exhausted and burnt out, HR professionals are experiencing something different. It’s called compassion fatigue.

According to Dustin Keller, Ph.D. and licensed professional counselor, compassion fatigue is a condition often experienced by people who work in helping professions, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, and social workers. It occurs when an individual reaches a point of diminished capacity to empathize with others due to constant exposure to others’ pain. Often described as the cost of caring, compassion fatigue can present itself as feelings of detachment, emotional numbing, and general anxiety. It can often lead to decreased productivity and ability to focus, and in more severe cases, increased use of alcohol, drugs, and risk-taking behavior.

According to a recent study by Lattice, 90% of HR professionals reported that their stress levels increased in the last year, and a separate study found that 71% of HR leaders said 2020 was the most stressful year of their entire careers. The best ways to cope with compassion fatigue aren’t revolutionary, but they do require intentional behavior change.

1) Use ALL of Your Time Off

Yes, all of it. For empathetic professionals, such as those in human resources, it can often be too easy to skip vacation days. There is always more work to be done, more people to help or more policies to put in place. But vacation time exists for a reason. When employees don’t take enough time off, they return to work from shortened vacations making incomplete mental and emotional recoveries. Continuing in this pattern long-term leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout. One of the best ways to feel more confident taking time away is to cross-train colleagues so that there is no single person who is solely responsible for a particular task. This gives professionals the peace of mind to step away, knowing their vacations won’t feel like a punishment upon returning to the office.

2) Practice What You Preach

These days, HR professionals spend a lot of their time putting employee experiences, educational programs, benefits, and policies in place to help the workforce improve their mental health and wellbeing. It can be too easy for HR leaders to remove themselves from the rest of the workforce, adopting a “this is for them, not for me” mentality. But the reality is that benefits are for all employees, from the interns to the CEO. In order to improve compassion fatigue, HR professionals need to practice what they preach. Setting a healthy example by taking advantage of the policies, programs, and benefits that are in place will not only improve mental health but will also encourage a company culture that prioritizes its own mental recovery.

3) Get Caregiver Support

HR professionals are the caregivers of the organization, so it’s no surprise that many of the individuals working in HR are caregivers to their families, as well, adding directly to their struggles with compassion fatigue. In fact, a February 2021 study by Willis Towers Watson found that the number one cause of employee stress was caregiving responsibilities. One of the best ways to improve stress is to get right to the source of it. Caregiver support programs and benefits that help HR professionals and other employees solve complex and time-consuming problems related to their families can alleviate emotional exhaustion and fatigue, which in turn creates the mental space for individuals to refocus at work.

Since the start of the pandemic, HR professionals have had to pivot, expand and step up at work in ways that they had never imagined, and it’s taking its toll. But when the only way out is through, adopting a few behavior changes and taking full advantage of the company benefits and policies available to them can brighten the path forward.