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A Stress Survival Guide for HR Professionals

March 3, 2001
In today’s 24/7, merging, consolidating, “do more with less” workenvironment, the letters “HR” could as easily stand for “Hub ofReorganization” as for “Human Resources.” In fact, it’s the intersectionof the two organizational dynamics, human exchange and systemic change, thataccounts for the challenge and performance pressure for the HR manager and otherhuman resources professionals. 

    A person, over time, is confronted by rapidly changing requirements andresponsibilities especially related to the welfare, safety and rights of others.He or she may lack sufficient control, authority or autonomy to deal with suchdemands. When this happens, the result is chronic stress. 

    Let’s begin with a list of HR-related stressors: 

  1. Availability and Accountability. While HR may be a separatedepartment, it is hardly an island on corporate waters. Company personnelbelieve they should have some representation through HR and that HR should be atthe beck and call of all employees. Beware of HR professionals who establish arescuer role and take every personnel problem home. Burnout is less a sign offailure and more sign of giving yourself away.

  2. Objectivity. The challenge for an effective and widely accepted HRdepartment is to maintain some functional independence. The HR professional mustalso be somewhat detached from yet, also, be an objective and concerned advocatefor management and employees. Problem solving (not just numbers crunching) is animportant force in an organization.

  3. Multiple Roles. The HR manager/professional often plays many roles –from coach and counselor to cop and confessor. And, if that’s not enough, heor she must also be the organizational or interpersonal safety net or back upwhen there are breakdowns. For example, manager-supervisor-employee relations,reorganization such as a downsizing, outdated or illegal policies andprejudicial procedures, etc.

  4. Disgruntled Personnel. As outlined above, there are HR demands andresponsibilities aplenty. The proverbial icing on the cake is negotiatingproblems with people who have grievances about a supervisor, pay, evaluation andpromotion/termination issues. Certainly it can be emotionally and professionallyrewarding to rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronicallyproviding service to angry customers can all too easily result in a case of"brain strain."

  5. Transitional Glue. Especially in times of rapid or volatile change -mergers, downsizing, rapid startup and growth - the HR manager becomes a companycheerleader (or that stress confessor). He or she often helps folks sustainmorale in the face of an uncertain and vulnerable future. The HR goal is to notallow the company’s "esprit de corps" to regress into an"esprit de corpse." 

    The HR Manager may become the messenger, helping employees and supervisorsinterpret reorganization pronouncements from the management mountaintop.Sometimes the HR leader must assume the Moses mantle while the employee tribeswander for a period in the transitional desert. Anyone for the training class on"Parting Really Large Bodies of Water?"

  6. Crisis Management. The HR manager must realize that when certaincrises are outside his or her sphere of "hands on" influence, he orshe must resist the “solo savior syndrome” role. Believing you are thecenter of your corporate solar system is a potential danger because allorganizational life depends on your energy source.

    When downsizing trauma evokedracial tension and threats in a federal government division - pulling a KKK Website off the Internet and playing a Louis Farrakhan tape in public - HR calledme in. As a critical incident specialist, my role is clear: to stop the viciouscycle before it turns violent and to lay the groundwork for productive conflictresolution and team building.

  7. Privacy Requirements.  An ongoing challenge for the HRprofessional interfacing with numerous individuals, departments and seniormanagers is sharing critical information and upholding employees’ privacyrights. 

    A specific stressor came to my attention recently: confidentiality. Oneparticular incident involved an HR manager who was unsure of how to respond to asupervisor’s breach. 

    This supervisor unprofessionally, if not illegally, shared with her employeesthat a colleague had been hospitalized for mental health reasons. Such a breachis like a computer virus that can contaminate everyone’s operating system andsecurity. The HR manager’s standing as a leader was on the line, not just thesupervisor’s. 

  8. Ever-changing Technology and Policy. Like other corporate entities,the HR department must keep up with new software and data processing systems.Having an internal website to share key information with employees is critical.And invariably, getting started technologically takes longer than anticipated.Glitch happens!

    With policy, there are always ever-changing requirements or culturaldiversity/gender issues mandated by the likes of Congress or the EPA. But let’snot overlook the rapidly changing constrictions from the corporate headquartersto field operations. All these systemic forces can undermine a sense of controlfor the everyday HR functioning.

  9. Training Demands. The HR team cannot possibly provide individualemployee handholding for all personnel issues. Depending on company size, HRshould have enough time and staff to provide classroom orientation on HR-relatedmatters. HR managers often need to delegate the training function tosubordinates. Individuals must be encouraged to do reasonable data gathering orresearch or else HR will be enabling inefficient, if not dysfunctional,dependence.

  10. Office Space Time. Finally, the HR manager/department must discoverthe elusive balance between physical access and protected space needed forproductive energy. Feng Shui rules even in Corporate America. Feng Shui("fung shway" = wind and water) is the study of environmentalbalance. The system studies people's relationships to their environment inorder to achieve maximum harmony with spiritual forces, which influence allplaces. 

    Departments without “closed door” time and closed meeting spacefor the HR team invites both productivity and morale problems, which may lead toprivacy violations and anxieties amongst employees.

    Here are five survival strategies:

  1. Balance Interdependence and Autonomy. The HR manager and departmentmust project an image of operational objectivity and privacy defender whileperforming their overall management function. The HR professional must alsodevelop a capacity for "detached involvement," that is, beingsensitive to personnel issues and individual employee concerns while resistingthe rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home - literally or emotionally- your personal/personnel boundary will start to erode.

  2. Reach Out to Specialists and Consultants. Resist the urge to be Ramboor Rambette. This involves taking things too personally, processing asignificant downsizing or upgrading a computer system by yourself. Reach out forexpert support such as an Employee Assistance Program counselor, especially withseriously disgruntled or dysfunctional employees. For widespread departmenttension consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

  3. Balance Administrative Work and Human Relating. Beware of becoming asolitary HR number cruncher who’s sequestered in an IT fortress. Don’t losethe human touch. Periodically, walk around your shop and swap stories with folkson the work floor. Bridge the gap between management and employees. Rotatingdifferent hats will also help you follow my maxim, "Fireproof your lifewith variety!"

  4. Encourage Independence by Setting Boundaries. These threeboundary-setting strategies will enable the HR manager to successfully jugglevarious roles and responsibilities:

    1. Delegation. Monitoring (not micromanaging) employee performance isvital. Balance the Triple A, - Authority, Autonomy and Accountability - whichare critical management and stress tools.

    2. Education. Help others not to be so dependent on your indispensableknowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures, Website information negotiating and self-initiated employee data gathering, etc.,is vital in today’s time- and task-driven environment.

    3. Separation. Generate the space-time dynamics for optimalperformance of HR. Balance accessibility and boundaries with “closeddoor" time; design a form and function office layout that allows for vitalinterdependence between HR and employees. One HR department installed adartboard on a back wall for stress relieving fun and friendly competition.Model the stress management mantra, "Giving of yourself and giving toyourself!"

  5. Maximize Team Meetings. Productive team meetings are essential toshare logistically and emotionally demanding workload for the HR manager and hisor her staff. Meetings should to be more than time and task-driven staffing;build in a 15-minute "wavelength" segment. Use this segment for thegroup to grapple with emotionally tough personnel issues - dealing with pinkslips, reorganization uncertainty, turf battles with other departments, culturaldiversity tensions, etc. 

    Let a staff member acknowledge sources of work pressure. As a group, assessthe strengths and roadblocks affecting solid team coordination and cooperation.Perhaps even rotate the leadership of these meetings amongst your HR staff.Learn to wear both the team member and manager hats.

    Recognizing these ten stressors and five strategic interventions will lightenthe personal load while strengthening leadership hold.