Compassion fatigue in HR professionals, and how to avoid it

Compassion fatigue in HR professionals: Working in human resources has always been a challenging profession. Traditionally HR professionals have been dealing with everything from finding the right talent for the organisation and developing staff, through to some of the less pleasant tasks such as grievances and disciplinaries.

Since the pandemic first took hold in early 2020, HR professionals have been dealing with many additional challenges, such as transitioning their workforce from in-office to remote work (and in some instances, back again), updating HR policies, and rolling out new benefits.

In addition, they may have experienced sudden changes in corporate strategy, which have seen many employees suddenly laid off.

This constant daily stress and emotional labour have left many HR professionals experiencing the phenomenon of compassion fatigue. According to Dustin Keller, Ph.D., compassion fatigue is a condition often experienced by people who work in caring professions such as doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers. And now we can add HR professionals to that list.

Compassion fatigue occurs when someone reaches a point where the ability to empathize with others has been reduced due to constant exposure to others’ pain. HR are frequently dealing with the emotions of the workforce, whether it’s their financial difficulties, interpersonal challenges or retaliation against return to office policies, all of which can lead to overload. This phenomenon is often described as “the cost of caring.” Compassion fatigue can present as feelings of detachment, emotional numbing, and general anxiety. It may lead to decreased productivity and ability to focus, among other things.

Compassion fatigue is different from burnout. Where burnout often stems from dissatisfaction with the work environment, compassion fatigue comes from absorbing the suffering of the people you work with on a consistent basis.

In the words of Dr. Rachel Remen, a professor at the Osher Center of Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

With the world now facing new economic challenges, the stress levels are not coming down any time soon, so here are a few ways to deal with compassion fatigue:

1. Take your paid time off – all of it

For empathetic HR professionals, skipping leave days or even whole holidays can often be too easy. There are always more people to help, more work to be done, and more policies to implement. But as HR professionals know all too well, time off exists for a reason. When employees don’t take that time, they return to work without making adequate mental and emotional recoveries. If this pattern continues long-term, it can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout. It’s the same for the HR professional, even more so when pressures are high.

2. Leverage Your Employee Benefits

Since the onset of the pandemic, HR professionals have spent a lot of time putting employee education programs and policies in place to help the workforce improve their mental health and overall wellbeing. But it can be too easy for HR leaders to remove themselves from those considerations. But benefits are for all employees, from interns to the CEO to the HR professional. To reduce the impact of compassion fatigue, HR professionals need to follow words with actions. Set a healthy example by taking advantage of the policies, programs, and benefits you have put in place, which will encourage a company culture that prioritizes mental health.

3. Hire Outside Support

There is no shame in bringing in some extra hands when the situation calls for it. Indeed it is part of the HR professionals’ role to spot a potential shortfall in staffing and take steps or make recommendations to fill it. For example, with the pandemic increasing the need for specialized and experienced experts to join the team temporarily, you could hire professional coaches who are certified through organisations such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF). The ICF is the governing body for professional coaches all over the world. They have processes to ensure high standards of practice within the industry. An injection of this qualified outside expertise and knowledge could provide precisely the boost required to get through a particularly challenging period at a fraction of the cost or disruption of hiring new staff.

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