The pandemic may be over, but the fallout is causing HR pros to stress out and burn out

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DO YOU KNOW WHAT GRABS my attention? It’s stories that say that HR leaders are getting battered by crises that are leading to burnout and higher turnoverand that managing a workforce in flux is causing “chaos for HR professionals.

For the love of SHRM, what is going on with human resources today?

It seems that even though were finally recovering from the global pandemic and lockdown, the stresses that defined that period continue to cause havoc on far too many organizations and their workforces.

And as with most people management matters, the weight of those stresses usually lands disproportionately on one group – Human Resource professionals.

“More reactive than proactive”

Here’s what Fortune said in their article on the battering of HR by these crises:

“How would you describe your current mental capacity as an HR head?” That’s the question Matt Summers, global head of leadership at the consulting firm NeuroLeadership Institute, posed to the CHRO of a large California-based tech firm earlier this year. She described it as trying to drive a Formula 1 car in downtown Manhattan during rush hour — blindfolded.

CHROs are tired. Three years past the pandemic’s U.S. start, burnout among people leaders is high. The health crisis, closely followed by intense economic uncertainty, has caused higher turnover in the HR function as people leaders battling their own mental health challenges are also held responsible for the organization’s well-being. …

We’re being more reactive than proactive. More responsive than innovative. And we’re not collaborating as an HR function or tapping into our best innovative thinking,’ Summers says.

This story in WorkLife made a similar point about HR:

“We’re seeing a lot of chaos in HR. It seems like everything is going forward, then backward — there’s complete whiplash in the industry” explained Eric Mosley, CEO of the employee recognition and management platform Workhuman.

From quiet quitting to RTO to bare minimum Mondays, “It feels like everything everywhere all at once,” Mosley told HR people gathered for the company’s annual Workhuman Live conference in San Diego. “And at the heart of it is our disconnection from each other, and a rise in mental health issues because not as many people are connected to each other anymore. We need to bring a little humanity back to the workplace.”

Increased concern for HR pros

I’VE COVERED HR, recruiting, and talent management for more than 20 years. I’ve seen everything from the Why We Hate HR erato Jack Welch’s high-powered discussion of why HR needed to be every company’s “killer app,” to the push for HR to “get a seat at the table” with other C-suite execs. 

But even through all of that, I’ve never seen so much concern for what the current work environment is doing to HR professionals today.

Fortune’s focus is on how HR is both stressing out and burning out after being at the center of the workplace storm during the pandemic that turned so many workplaces upside down.

Here are some telling statistics:

“Forty-two percent of people teams report struggling with too many projects and responsibilities, according to a survey from HR software company Lattice. Over 60% of those who report exhaustion say it’s due to overwork, while some 40% attribute it to a lack of headcount needed to achieve their goals.”

The story gives some examples of how HR professionals are coping with this crisis with a greater focus on how to counteract the effects of burnout.

The Worklife article is based on speakers at last Spring’s annual Workhuman Live conference. It’s less focused on how HR pros are impacted as they struggle to manage today’s workforce, and more about the many issues that employees are bringing to their doorstep.

Here’s one example:

For Robin Schooling, director of talent strategy at HR solutions and administration firm Humareso, the accelerated, relentless pace of change is a top concern. “Dealing with the pandemic put HR folks into hyperdrive as organizational norms were upended — and they still haven’t recovered,” she said. “They think if they refuse to acknowledge change, maybe it won’t happen.”

Increased concern for HR pros

THE MOST USEFUL REPORT on managing the post-pandemic workplace came from McKinsey’s recently released State of the Organization 2023: Ten Shifts Transforming Organizations.

You need to read the report because there is far too much to get into here, but perhaps a list of the 10 most significant organizational shifts McKinsey has focused on might give you a better feel for where this analysis is going:

  1. Increasing speed, strengthening resilience — Half the respondents in our survey say their organization is unprepared to react to future shocks. Those able to bounce forward—and quickly — out of serial crises may gain significant advantages over others.
  2. True hybrid,” the new balance of in-person and remote work — Since the pandemic, about 90 percent of organizations have embraced a range of hybrid models that allow employees to work off-site for some or much of the time. It’s important that organizations provide structure and support around the activities best done in person or remotely.
  3. Making way for applied AI — “AI is more than just a potential opportunity to boost a company’s operations; it can also be used to build better organizations.
  4. New rules of attraction, retention, and attritionPeople are revising their attitudes both to work and at work. Organizations can respond by tailoring employee value propositions to individualized preferences in ways that can help close the gap between what today’s workers want and what companies need.
  5. Closing the capability chasmTo achieve a competitive advantage, organizations need to build institutional capabilities  an integrated set of people, processes, and technology that enables them to do something consistently better than competitors.
  6. Walking the talent tightrope Business leaders have long walked a talent tightrope — carefully balancing budgets while retaining key people. In today’s uncertain economic climate, they need to focus more on matching top talent to the highest-value roles.
  7. Leadership that is self-aware and inspiringLeaders today need to be able to lead themselves, lead a team of peers in the C-suite, and exhibit the leadership skills and mindset required to lead at scale, coordinating and inspiring networks of teams. To do that, they must build a keen awareness of both themselves and the operating environments around them.
  8. Making meaningful progress on diversity, equity, and inclusionMany organizations are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), but … to realize DEI aspirations, leaders will need to identify opportunities to make progress both in their organizations and in their communities and broader society. 
  9. Mental health: Investing in a portfolio of interventions“Nine of ten organizations around the world offer some form of well-being program. But … organizations need to refocus their efforts on systematically addressing the causes of mental-health and well-being challenges; one-off and incremental fixes won’t be enough.
  10. Efficiency reloadedMore than one-third of leaders in our survey list efficiency as a top three organizational priority. Boosting efficiency is about more than managing immediate crises or getting the same work done with fewer resources; it means more effectively deploying resources to where they matter the most.

“An unwavering commitment to their people”

ONE FINAL COMMENT from McKinsey gives hope that some of the answers to the larger issues facing HR today are reflected in their State of the Organization 2023 report:

“While there is no blueprint for success in tackling these organizational shifts, some companies serve as beacons of inspiration, showing possible paths forward. … 

While this isn’t a comprehensive compilation, the companies in it represent diverse industries and geographies and share common threads: an unwavering commitment to their people and the ability to transform in the face of disruption.”

HERE’S MY TAKE: The Covid pandemic and lockdown will define the lives of everyone who went through it for as long as they live. The challenge will be how to put it behind us and get back to whatever passes for normal life again.

We’ve seen some of that, and although many things seem to be settling down, it’s still easy to get rattled when we see something unexpected happen — like a favorite restaurant closing now after working so hard to get through the lockdown.

The ongoing struggle over remote and hybrid work is just one of the Covid-era workplace issues that HR leaders battle every day. No wonder there is so much “chaos for HR professionals.”

The big question is how long will it take them to work through the many workplace work-arounds and other things that need to be fixed before we can truly get back to normal life and work again?

As Bob Dylan once noted, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

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