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Opinion: The trouble with HR

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These tough economic conditions can be challenging for HR professionals, with cut backs and redundancies top of the agenda at the moment. But who looks after the wellbeing of HR during these difficult times? Wendy Reeves provides some coaching advice for the weary HR executive.


As a former HR manager, and latterly in my employment as an HR director, I know only too well the pressures and the difficult assignments that befall the corporate HR department.

The key function of good HR is to provide a service to the organisation and its staff. The workforce, from the top to the bottom, need to be treated as 'the customer', supporting and delivering to that customer as required. I have always believed in HR operating an 'open door' policy to anyone within the organisation. An accessible and visible HR department creates trust, confidence, and cohesion. Not always easy at the best of times, and in this current economic climate beleaguered HR personnel are beginning to suffer.

Cut backs and waves of redundancies are currently on businesses' agendas, as they fight to survive the credit crunch. Head office functions and responsibilities such as marketing are being removed and re-assigned to be delivered by line management, and effecting the change that these situations bring – not only for those leaving, but also for those remaining – often requires HR input. And frequently when all that is done, it’s the turn of HR being the last to go. If your boss asks you for details of the redundancy process, be wary.

"Their sense of self preservation buckles as they try to deal with making their colleagues redundant."

At my last employment, the company was working towards floating on the stock market, and the share options awarded to me at the time of my directorship would turn in to ordinary shares, which I could cash in. It was at this stage that I made the decision to make some life changes as this windfall would support and help me move forward to a new chapter in my life.

Part of the company's preparation to float was to tidy up the management structure, which fell upon my department. Even though I was preparing my own exit some months ahead, it came as a huge shock that I was included in that tidy up process – they didn't require an HR director going forward. Thankfully, the timing of my redundancy hit three years ago when the economy was buoyant, and receiving a redundancy package as well as the payout from the shares did ease the blow. I was lucky. But at the time, being forced out of a job you've given many years to is never easy to face, no matter what the circumstances.

Who looks after the wellbeing of HR during these difficult times?

In my coaching business I have come across many HR people who are really struggling to cope under these current pressures. Their sense of self preservation buckles as they try to deal with making their colleagues redundant – colleagues whom they've known over a number of years and who perform well with an excellent record of conduct.

Before we can attempt to minimise the stress and pressures, we first need to recognise that we are suffering from it. The next step is to realise what the triggers are. Stress comes in two directions: internally – the stress we create…pressure we put on ourselves, and; externally – work, boss, family etc.

Here are some tips on how to deal with stress:

– Rest: For example, move away from your computer and do something different, such as getting a drink every 30-40 minutes.
– Relaxation: What can you do to chill out? Perhaps listen to music or meditate? Yoga or other holistic therapies can really help.
– Recreation: Physically being active in some way, walking, swimming or going to the gym. Don’t become a hermit – keep up a social life.

  • Find a support network, either a ‘buddy’ at work, or someone outside whom you can talk to about how you are feeling.
  • Build up a resilience to stress and implement the three 'R's' to help focus on things you can control:
  • Always aim to take a break for lunch. Taking time out during the day is very important if you want to stay fresh and recharged for the next part of the day. The mind has an opportunity to relax and think about something else, which helps improve the concentration. Change your state, go for a walk and get some fresh air to rejuvenate and restore energy, do something for yourself and fulfil a personal task. These small steps reap huge benefits – stress levels reduce, performance improves and you will feel a lot better.
  • Stress can really effect how you sleep, exasperating how you feel. Try and follow some basic rules; for example, avoid caffeinated drinks in the evening; go to bed when you are tired; relax before bedtime, many find taking a hot bath really helps relax both the body and the mind; exercise regularly (but not before bedtime) and stick to a healthy diet. By getting plenty of sleep you will be rewarded by performing more efficiently and sustainably.
  • Mind Set: Think positive and focus on what you can do and influence, rather than on what you can’t do. Negativity is unhelpful and gets you nowhere. Ask yourself empowering questions. In the midst of a crisis, for example, don’t ask why you got into this mess; ask how you can improve it.
  • Be self-aware: Stress and worry lead to loss of motivation and procrastination. If you feel you can't break the stress cycle, seek help to get you back on track and in control.
  • Consider the 'what if's' and what your options are.

Wendy Reeves is founder of LifeGoal, a coaching practice helping individuals on a personal/professional level, sole traders and small business owners. As a consultant she has coached management at organisations, including Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Tesco and United Biscuits.

4 Responses

  1. Other relaxation exercises
    Some great tips in that article. Two extra exercises that have helped me in difficult circumstances are deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Look at “relaxation exercises” at patient.co.uk. (I have no business/financial interest in that site).
    As an aside, I’ve also found that off-site/different environment shouting works well.

  2. If HR ‘goes down’, we all go down with it!
    There is no doubt that the ‘pinch’ may be just as physically and emotionally painful for HR as it is for everyone else. Given the fact that levels of stress and pressure are inextricably linked to decision making and performance, it is in everyone’s interests that HR also have the right kinds of support. Wendy rightly reminds us all that issues surrounding people’s futures, are being dealt with by real people, and the rest of us need HR to get it right!

  3. It goes with the territory
    Wendy’s tips on stress management are useful and we need to accept that HR professionals have to make difficult decisions regardless of the economy they work in. For example, in good times I’ve spent long periods in recruitment – there too I had to make hard decisions about who to put through for further interviews with my rather prestigious employer. I was aware other people’s careers were on the line.

    And harder still, in one role we uncovered what appeared to be a minor expenses fraud involving a young woman in her early 20s. My boss, the HR Director, wanted to call in the police, I was torn – a reprimand and dismissal might not be sufficient; but involving the police would end with this young woman having a criminal record that would affect her future career.

    The reality is that we’re all human and dealing with other people can be stressful. Keeping Wendy’s tips to hand will help us cope.

  4. A timely reminder
    This is a timely reminder that HR professionals are human beings too!The emotional impact of “restructuring” when people are involved – ie most of the time – should not be underestimated. Very good tips too Wendy.
    I am supporting someone who is in this situation and they have told me how helpful it is to have someone outside the organisation to talk to – not to fix things or say that it will get better but just to listen!

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