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Dr Jo Burrell

Ultimate Resilience

Clinical Psychologist

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Under pressure: Why wellbeing is waning among HR professionals

A first of its kind survey set out to investigate the mental wellbeing of HR professionals. The findings were concerning. Dr Jo Burrell explores the pressures eroding emotional wellbeing.
shallow focus photography of body of water during sunset: turning the tide on the mental health and wellbeing of HR professionals

Over the 10-year lifespan of our workplace wellbeing business, we’ve become well acquainted with HR roles and their associated challenges. 

Typically the commissioners but rarely the recipients of our training and coaching services, many HR people have shared with us the daily pressures that are part and parcel of their professional experience. 

Yet, despite the inevitable toll this has taken on their health and wellbeing, most have continued to cope in an almost superhuman fashion.  

But in the post-pandemic era something has shifted. Suddenly, HR professionals have started asking us for help. In increasing numbers, they’re requesting support to tackle the damaging effects of chronic stress and to build resilience against future threats. 

Suddenly, HR professionals have started asking us for help

Why are more HR professionals asking for help?

Always interested in the data behind a trend, we decided to search for studies that could shed light on this surprising development. Why were we seeing such a surge in HR people seeking our support? 

But what we found was not a lot. Hard data revealing the state of HR mental wellbeing is sadly lacking. Indeed, a quick Google search throws up an abundance of reports on the HR role in supporting the wellbeing of others, but almost nothing on ways that HR professionals can nurture their own mental health. 

So, we decided to design a survey. 

It started as a bit of an experiment, really. We just wanted to scratch an itch. Is it true that more and more HR people are struggling? And does anyone care?

A crisis in HR?

To our knowledge, this was the first survey of its kind specifically investigating the mental wellbeing of HR professionals. 

A total of 91 people completed our survey, producing over 3,000 data points covering aspects of mental wellbeing including sleep quality, mood and workplace support. 

Shining a spotlight on what is likely to be a much wider problem than we first thought, the results paint a sobering picture:

  • Rates of depression almost three times higher than in the general population
  • Anxiety two-and-a-half times higher than in the general population
  • Almost half of respondents (48%) experiencing at least one symptom of burnout
  • Low levels of wellbeing evident in 57% of respondents

And particularly worryingly, 78% rating mental wellbeing support at work as insufficient. 

Is it true that more and more HR people are struggling?

What’s going on?

It’s well known that people-facing work brings a range of unique pressures. 

Vicarious trauma, interpersonal stress, complex relationships and organisational dynamics – these are the baked-in realities of being a people professional. And inevitably they take an emotional toll. But one that most have been enduring successfully for many years. 

Then the pandemic happened, and HR professionals were in the eye of the storm. Fast forward a few years and there’s been little let-up. 

The great resignation, hybrid working, the cost-of-living crisis … the list of new challenges falling at the door of HR seem never-ending. 

Mounting pressure

But there are other, more endemic factors that have slowly eroded their emotional wellbeing. 

The pressure to be all things to all people, to solve every problem, to always cope no matter what. Over time these expectations have become embedded into the culture of the profession. 

They set an unattainable standard, leaving HR professionals with feelings of shame about their wellbeing struggles. With shame often comes a reluctance to speak out – a conspiracy of silence – which only serves to delay or prevent access to help, allowing problems to intensify. 

People-facing work brings a range of unique pressures

A new era for HR mental wellbeing

So, with demands on HR never higher, how can this worrying trend be reversed? 

Speaking out

“HR Managers and leaders must be fully trained and able to support their teams. Allowing them time in 1:1s or team meetings to discuss how they are feeling and the challenges they are facing,” – Claire Cathcart, HR Thought Leader and Founder of ELEVATE.

Making a commitment to talk more openly about your own mental health sets an example to others. It is particularly important that those in more senior positions set this example. This gives permission to junior colleagues to share their challenges and to reach out. 

Space to recover

“We should be ensuring that those working in HR have dedicated time for quiet reflection and opportunities to calm the mind and decompress from work,” – Gethin Nadin, award-winning psychologist, bestselling HR author and the World’s Most Influential HR Thinker 2023.

With an array of pressures and demands at your door, it can be difficult to create space to unwind and process the emotional impacts of work. 

To protect HR professionals from persistent stress and burnout, employers need to support them to take regular breaks throughout the working day. Also to maintain clear boundaries between work and leisure time.  

It can be difficult to create space to unwind and process the emotional impacts of work

Systems of support 

“HR is such a difficult field to operate in, whilst bringing incredible rewards and achievements. HR professionals need some space to talk and evaluate how we can manage what work does to us and how to look after ourselves when we are the people that everyone expects to have it together,” – Liz Willett, Head of Business Partnership at Kraft HR Consulting. 

HR professionals regularly support others experiencing distress, and yet the emotional effects often go unrecognised. Just like in other people-focused professions such as counselling and clinical psychology, robust systems of support should be embedded within the HR profession. This support needs to be available to all from early career onwards.

And finally, pushing back against the prevailing tide takes strength and courage. This is best promoted through HR professionals pulling together and supporting each other. 

If you enjoyed this article, why not read: What does being resilient even mean??

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Dr Jo Burrell

Clinical Psychologist

Read more from Dr Jo Burrell

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