A Stress Survival Guide for HR Managers/Professionals

In today’s unstable, 24/7, “do more with less” corporate world, the role of Human Resources is more critical than ever. How does the HR Pro bridge the gaps between employees, supervisors and managers not to mention whirlwind technology without falling into the black hole of burnout? Have no fear; the Stress Doc is here with your stress survival guide.

In today’s 24/7, constantly changing, merging and consolidating, “do more with less” work environment, the letters “HR” could as easily stand for “Hub of Reorganization” as for “Human Resources.” And, in fact, it’s the intersection of these two organizational dynamics — human exchange and systemic change — that accounts for the inherent challenge and performance pressure for the HR Manager and other human resources professionals. When a person, over time, is confronted by high demands along with rapidly changing requirements and responsibilities (especially related to the welfare, safety, rights, etc., of others) and believes he lacks sufficient control, authority or autonomy to deal with such high pitched and fast paced demands, the result is predictable: Chronic Stress!

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

1. Availability and Accountability
The stress factor is double-pronged: While HR may be a separate department, it is hardly an island in corporate waters; all company personnel believe they should have some representation through HR. HR should be at the beck and call of all employees. And if the HR professional totally buys into the rescuer role, taking every personnel problem home at night… beware: Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away.

2. Objectivity
The challenge for an effective and widely accepted HR department is to maintain some functional independence even when part of the management structure. The HR professional must be somewhat detached from yet also be an objective and concerned advocate for both management and employees to be a robust problem-solving (not just numbers crunching) force in the organization.

3. Multiple Roles
In light of his or her hub position, not surprisingly, the HR manager/professional often plays many roles — from coach and counselor to cop and confessor. And, if that’s not enough, he or she must be the organizational or interpersonal safety net or back up when there are breakdowns or problems with: 

a) manager-supervisor-employee relations, 
b) reorganizational change, such as a downsizing, 
c) hiring crises, 
d) outdated or illegal policies, 
e) prejudicial procedures, etc.

4. Disgruntled Personnel
Clearly, as outlined above, there are HR demands and responsibilities aplenty. The proverbial icing, of course, is having to negotiate problems with people who have a grievance with a supervisor, are upset about pay, performance evaluation or promotion (or termination) issues. Certainly, it can be emotionally and professionally rewarding helping rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronically providing service to angry customers can all to easily result in a case of “brain strain.”

5. Transitional Glue
Especially in times of rapid or volatile change — mergers, downsizing or rapid startup or growth — the HR Manager often becomes a company cheerleader (or that stress confessor). He or she often must help folks sustain morale in the face of an uncertain and possibly vulnerable future. The HR goal: not allowing the company’s “esprit de corps” regress into an “esprit de corpse!” The HR Manager may become the messenger helping employees and supervisors interpret reorganizational pronouncements from the management mountaintop. Sometimes the HR leader must assume the Moses mantle while the employee tribes wander for a period in the transitional desert. Anyone for the training class on, “Parting Really Large Bodies of Water?”

6. Crisis Management
When the hub of the wheel, a potential danger is the belief that you are the center of the corporate solar system. All organizational life depends on your energy source. The HR Manager must realize when certain crises are outside his or her sphere of productive “hands on” influence; one must resist the “solo savior syndrome” role. When downsizing trauma started evoking racial tension and threats — the pulling up of a KKK website and public playing of a Louis Farrakhan tape — in a federal government division, HR called for the Stress Doc. As a critical incident specialist my role is clear: to stop the vicious cycle before it turns violent and to lay the groundwork for productive conflict resolution and team building.

7. Privacy Requirements
An ongoing challenge for the HR Professional interfacing with numerous individuals, departments and senior managers is sharing critical information and upholding employees’ privacy rights. Another stressor recently came to my attention: an HR Manager unsure how to respond to a supervisor’s breach of confidentiality. This supervisor unprofessionally (if not, illegally) shared with her employees that a colleague was hospitalized for mental health reasons. Such a breach is like a virus that can contaminate everyone’s operating system and sense of security. The HR Manager’s standing as a leader is on the line, not just the supervisor’s.

8. Ever-changing Technology and Policy
Like other corporate entities, The HR Department must keep up with new software and data processing systems. Increasingly, having an internal website for sharing key information with employees is critical. And invariably, to get up and running technologically takes longer than anticipated. Glitch happens!

And, of course, there are ever-changing policy requirements or cultural diversity/gender issues — whether mandated by Congress or the EPA. Also, let’s not overlook the rapidly changing or constricting dictates from corporate headquarters to field operations. All these systemic forces can undermine a sense of control of everyday HR functioning.

9. Training Demands
The HR Team cannot provide individual handholding with employees for all personnel issues. Depending on company size, HR must have enough time and staff to provide classroom orientation on HR-related matters. An HR manager often needs to delegate the training function to a subordinate. A manager who cannot delegate is a manager who cannot survive. Individuals must be encouraged to do reasonable data gathering or research or else HR will be enabling inefficient, if not dysfunctional, dependence.

10. Office Space-Time
Finally, the HR Manager/Department must discover that elusive balance between reasonable physical access and protected space for productive energy. Feng Shui rules even in Corporate America. (A good friend sent this Encarta definition: FENG SHUI [“fung shway” = wind and water] is the study of environmental balance. The system studies people’s relationships to the environment in which they live, especially their dwelling or workspace, in order to achieve maximum harmony with the spiritual forces believed to influence all places.) A department without some “closed door” time and a closed meeting space for the HR team invites both productivity and morale problems — from actual privacy violations to free-floating privacy anxieties amongst employees.

Here are five survival strategies:

1. Balancing Interdependence and Autonomy
The HR Manager and Department must strive to project both an image of operational objectivity and a defender of privacy while performing an overall management function. Collaborating with department heads is vital, for example, when bringing on new hires. At the same time, the HR professional must also develop a capacity for “detached involvement,” that is, being sensitive to personnel issues and individual employee concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home — literally or emotionally — your personal/personnel boundary is starting to erode. See #2.

2. Reaching Out to Specialists and Consultants
Whether taking things too personally, feeling overwhelmed processing a significant downsizing of staff or stressed upgrading a computer system, don’t be that lone Rambo or Rambette. Reach out for expert support. Especially with seriously disgruntled or dysfunctional employees, whenever possible, collaborate with an Employee Assistance Program counselor. And, as mentioned, for widespread department tension consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

3. Balancing Administrative Work and Human Relating
Beware becoming a solitary HR numbers cruncher sequestered in your IT fortress. Don’t lose the human touch. Periodically, walk around your shop. Swap stories with folks on the work floor. Be the HR bridge between management and employees. And, perhaps most important, rotating different hats will help you follow that Stress Doc maxim: “Fireproof your life with variety!”

4. Encouraging Independence by Setting Boundaries
These three boundary-setting strategies will enable the HR Manager to successfully juggle various roles and responsibilities.

a. Delegation. Clearly, giving others a chance to demonstrate their skills and expertise while you monitor (not micromanage) their performance is vital. Balancing “The Triple A” — Authority, Autonomy and Accountability — is a critical management and stress management tool.

b. Education. Another key stress manager is helping others not be so dependent upon your indispensable knowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures, negotiating information on websites, and encouraging self-initiated employee data gathering, etc., is vital in today’s time- and task-driven environment.

c. Separation. Finally, generate the space-time dynamics for optimal performance for HR. Balance accessibility and boundaries with “closed door” time; design a form and function layout that allows for vital interdependence between HR and employees. One HR department installed a dartboard on a back wall for stress relieving fun and friendly competition. Model the stress management mantra: “Giving of yourself and giving to yourself!”

5. Maximizing Team Meetings
For the HR Manager and his or her staff, productive team meetings are essential for sharing a logistically and emotionally demanding workload. Meetings need to be more than time- and task-driven staffings; build in a fifteen-minute “wavelength” segment for group brainstorming and venting around emotionally tough personnel issues – dealing with pink slips, reorganizational uncertainty, turf battles with other departments, and cultural diversity tensions, etc. Let a staff member acknowledge sources of work pressure; as a group, assess the 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 team member and manager hats.

Recognizing the ten stressors and five strategic interventions will lighten your personal load while strengthening your leadership hold. And it will enable you and your entire HR team to…Practice Safe Stress!

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