Long before Covid hit, HR was playing a core role in supporting the workforce to navigate both personal and organisational challenge. But who’s been looking after HR all this time? How do they cope with and manage the emotional impact of their work and continue performing?
Stress-related absence among HR professionals increased by 70 per cent during 2020
The realities of working as a people professional
The truth is that supporting others through distressing and uncertain times takes its toll, regardless of your training or expertise. Professionals who routinely face challenging interpersonal situations, whether that’s hearing an account of a traumatic experience or delivering bad news, are exposed to emotionally distressing material on a regular basis. Over time, this makes them increasingly vulnerable to stress and burnout.
Traditional caring professions like counselling and psychotherapy are all too aware of this. And that’s why supervision is viewed within these professions as essential to maintaining ethical, professional practice and to supporting staff to stay healthy.
Why HR needs supervision
According to People Management Magazine, stress-related absence among HR professionals increased by 70 per cent during 2020. That figure may be unsurprising given the significant pressures that accompanied the pandemic, but it demonstrates that the traditional systems of support available to HR staff are not working.
Important ethical standards and the need to maintain professional boundaries around work relationships mean most HR professionals cannot reach out to colleagues for support. Despite often being the only individuals within an organisation who are party to distressing and difficult information, their isolated position means their support needs are commonly neglected.
A core function of supervision is to provide space to reflect on and process the difficult and distressing aspects of a role or job
Many HR professionals cope by establishing a position of ‘emotional detachment’. This can be helpful and effective up to a point. But can also be counterproductive by creating a barrier to acknowledging and processing emotions. In this way, troubling emotions and experiences stockpile, increasing the potential for mental health issues to develop, such as vicarious trauma and generalised anxiety.
What is supervision?
While there is no single agreed definition of supervision, it is generally accepted to be a system of regular support provided by another professional that enables individuals to reflect on and develop their knowledge, skills, and competence. The focus and approach taken can also vary, depending on the needs of the supervisee, their role and the wider workplace setting.
However, a core function of supervision is to provide space to reflect on and process the difficult and distressing aspects of a role or job. This consistent, safe space allows the staff member to step back from challenging situations, to make sense of them and, crucially, to leave them at work. This is important because the rest and recuperation required to be motivated and engaged at work can only take place when leisure and family time is not contaminated by troubling experiences and unsettling feelings.
Feedback methods, setting out expectations and managing conflict or ruptures in the supervisory relationship are also key topics to include in a contract
Supervision can also play a key role in helping people professionals to explore and resolve the many ethical dilemmas inherent in their work, to think through and understand interpersonal dynamics and to enhance self-care skills. All these functions help to protect the staff member from stress and burnout and support them to perform at their best for those they serve.
The key features of quality supervision
For supervision to be effective, safe and supportive, a number of elements must be present. Of central importance is establishing a supervision contract or agreement at the outset. This defines the parameters of the work, including the focus of supervision, the structure and frequency of sessions, and the bounds of confidentiality.
Feedback methods, setting out expectations and managing conflict or ruptures in the supervisory relationship are also key topics to include in a contract. Regular review of the contract means adaptations can be made in line with changing needs, allowing supervision to be flexible and responsive.
To establish whether supervision is what’s needed within your department, start by scoping out need and interest among your team
Taking time to discuss and develop the contract is particularly important because research evidence suggests that having a clear, shared understanding of the function of supervision has a positive impact on effectiveness. Delivering supervision in a protected private space that is free from interruptions, as well as establishing a supervisory relationship based on mutual trust and respect are also key to positive outcomes.
Making supervision available to HR
While there are similarities with other types of workplace support, such as coaching and mentoring, supervision is uniquely designed to address the emotional fallout of difficulties at work. It is this issue that so many HR professionals continue to grapple with – and it is one that will not be going away any time soon. For this reason, many are now recognising the urgent need for effective, targeted support.
To establish whether supervision is what’s needed within your department, start by scoping out need and interest among your team. Engage them in formulating a clear idea of what they require from supervision.
Impartiality can be central to allowing supervisees to speak openly about their experiences, so engaging the services of an external provider may be a priority. Make sure that anyone you employ in this role is suitably qualified and experienced. And negotiate with them a system for monitoring quality and effectiveness that produces data showing the returns on your investment.