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HR needs to stop feeling the need to be superheroes

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HR has changed almost unrecognisably in the 20 years since I started my career.

The one-time support function now sits at the heart of most businesses, advising and present as a key stakeholder on just about everything; because, after all, what business activities don’t in some way involve people?

But there’s something that we’re not talking about: the emotional toll of working in a profession that sees more extremes of emotion in a typical day than many departments might see in a year.


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If the tides were already shifting for HR prior to the pandemic, 2020 accelerated those changes still further.

HR became counsellors, life coaches, advisors, management consultants and – arguably most important of all – an outlet for all of the heightened emotions felt by frightened and uncertain people.

Covid brought employees’ home lives front and centre into the workplace, as work and home collided.

For many of us working in HR, we discovered the sheer scale of just how many people were living in impossibly difficult circumstances.

Poverty, abusive relationships, addiction and mental health challenges all came to the fore.

Without anyone else to speak to, and with our NHS under unimaginable strain, it was HR that these people came to for help.

And I’m so grateful that they did. Personally, the changes that we’ve seen during the last few years have meant that I have never loved my role more.

But I worry, genuinely, for those both new to the profession and those who have worked in it for some time who don’t have a support network in place.

When everyone is coming to you for help, what do you do when it’s actually you who needs help to work through some of the situations you’re faced with?

I’ve supported employees who are grieving, who are bankrupt, who are suicidal, who are alcoholics, who have received a terminal diagnosis and more.

It is an absolute privilege to be able to do so, but there was no part of my HR training which taught me how to do this.

CIPD qualifications are lauded in the profession, and my qualification has its place when it comes to some of the HR theory it taught me.

It’s also true that this is a profession where you only really learn your craft by being out there with the people you are there to support, nurture, develop and employ to enable your organisation to deliver.

When you’re getting HR right, and have successfully built a strong organisational culture, it’s my experience that people see HR not as some kind of business police, but as an open door where any issues and concerns can be raised.

This creates a phenomenal culture of trust and transparency, but it’s also fair to say the emotional impact of some of the situations we support on can be immense.

We have to get better at talking about this. We have to stop feeling like we need to be superheroes when everyone else is looking to us for help.

There are times when we won’t know what to do. There are times when we can’t do all of it alone. That’s okay.

Other professions are getting better at the support mechanisms they put in place for those affected by sensitive and challenging issues.

I was fascinated to hear from a legal contact of mine how the emotional impact of some of the cases lawyers deal with is increasingly being acknowledged.

Many HR professionals still work in standalone roles or in small, isolated teams.

Resources such as employment law helplines are great, but I believe that we need to look at the emotional support which is available to HR, too.

I am lucky to have a strong support network where I can offload in confidence and get any support that I might need. We need to ensure this becomes the expected norm for HR, not the exception.

We have a unique opportunity within HR to have an impact. We are frequently there on both the best and the worst days in people’s careers. It would be naive to think that, over time, that wouldn’t have an impact on the mental health of those working in HR.

We need to ensure far more open discussion on this topic, and demand more in terms of support for ourselves, to enable us to do the very best jobs that we can do. We need to remember that, just like everyone we support on a daily basis, we’re human, too.

 

Kathryn Kendall is chief people officer at Saltus

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