Recent research suggest that HR burnout is at an all-time high. An April 2022 survey by Workvivo, a workplace communication app, found that 98% of HR professionals report feeling burned out, fatigued and under pressure because of workplace transformations and the Great Resignation.
Dr. Susan Biali Haas knows firsthand about burnout. An overworked, stressed-out emergency medicine resident early in her career, she was stricken by a severe combination of clinical depression and burnout. Timely intervention by a caring leader eventually led her to switch medical specialties, as well as to embark on extensive, ongoing study of ways to overcome those two debilitating conditions.
Today Dr. Biali Haas is a renowned speaker, coach and blogger on burnout prevention, stress management and resilience. Her clients include corporations and their executives, military leaders, prestigious universities, and leading tech and business consulting firms.
Recently she spoke with Veronica Knuth, Quantum Health’s chief people officer, about HR burnout. They discussed the role leaders in HR today can play in recognizing and preventing burnout in their teams — and within themselves.
Q: Let’s start by defining terms. What exactly is burnout?
A: Burnout is a word we hear used broadly right now, but it actually refers to something very specific. In 2019 the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a “clinical syndrome.” It’s not a disease, and it’s not a formal mental health diagnosis, like depression or anxiety. But it is a very real occupational phenomenon that can influence a person’s health and be a reason they might need healthcare. For burnout to be present, there has to be what the WHO describes as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Q: We all can feel overwhelmed at times by the demands of work and life. Are there certain warning signs of true employee burnout?
A: There is a cluster of symptoms that typically occur. The first is emotional exhaustion. The second is cynicism and depersonalization — what the WHO calls “increased mental distance from one’s job.” This usually presents as a pronounced personality shift. The individual often isn’t aware until someone — often their children — tells them they’ve changed. They’re more negative. Someone who almost never complains finds themselves complaining all the time. The depersonalization piece is that we start to think of people we work with — whether clients or colleagues — less as human beings and more as obstacles or stressors we just have to survive in order to get to the end of the day.
Finally, there’s reduced efficacy and productivity that’s noticeable. A decreased sense of accomplishment. You might hear this in talking with your people. They’re showing loss of confidence in their ability to do their job. They’re starting to question their fit for the job, even though they were really excited about it in the past. When that starts to shift, it can be a flag for burnout.
Q: We should be watchful for these signs of employee burnout, but you caution that HR leaders shouldn’t attempt to diagnose burnout. Why?
A: That’s really the role of a qualified medical professional because there are things that can mimic burnout. I have a friend who was sure she was burned out. Thankfully, she went to her doctor first. The doctor did some tests and it turned out that she had iron deficiency anemia. Imagine if she’d just gone to a mental health counselor when it was a real medical problem.
Other conditions, like hypothyroidism, can mimic burnout symptoms. And depression often coexists with burnout at the more severe end of the spectrum. The approaches to treating depression and burnout are different, so it’s important for a physician to identify those. The very first thing you should do if you’ve been feeling emotionally exhausted, or you might advise someone else to do, is to go see your doctor.
Q: You educate clients on risk factors that can contribute to burnout at work. What are a few of those, and how can HR leaders focus on preventing employee burnout?
A: One, not surprising, is workload. But another we don’t always think of is when we lose control over how we do our work. That’s really stressful. We can increase people’s resilience by helping give them back control. This can be a two-way conversation, where we give workers an opportunity to say what would give them a greater sense of control. You also want to identify what would help you have more control.
Insufficient rewards are another burnout driver. It’s not financial rewards, primarily. When people don’t feel recognized or appreciated, it makes them vulnerable to burnout and at high risk for leaving. This is one of the simpler risks to start turning around. Each of us can help foster a culture of recognition and appreciation. I recommend you start with yourself because it’s so protective against burnout. Whenever someone gives you positive feedback, or you have a little success or a win, don’t just keep plowing on through your day. Give it a moment to sink in and really let it land.
Q: What are some strategies HR leaders can use to safeguard themselves from burnout?
A: There are several I use with my coaching clients. Delegating is one. Every leader I’ve ever worked with has things on their plate that should not be there. It’s usually because they’re so good at doing so many different things, and they have such compassion for their people, that it’s hard to delegate if their people might be overwhelmed already. I encourage them to think about it another way: Is there anything on your plate that’s a growth opportunity for someone else?
Saying “no,” and boundary management, also are critically important, because your organization needs you to do certain mission-critical things. What I see happen all the time is leaders have so much on their plates — they’re saying “yes” even though they know they should say “no” — it crowds out their ability to do what their organizations need them to do. This is something you can get coaching support, counseling or mentorship to help solve.
Q: You have a special message when speaking to HR leaders about burnout. Can you share that?
A: You are the heart of your organizations — the leading heart. You have so much responsibility for the wellbeing of others. Everyone needs you, in your workplace and in your personal life. So, I hope you see that taking care of yourself, having boundaries, and identifying what matters most to you and your wellbeing is the most powerful thing you can do to show up at your best for others.
For more information on Dr. Biali Haas’ work, visit ThriveWorkLive.com.