How can anyone care about HR until we care for ourselves?

4 minute read
It’s all very well advising HR leaders where to focus when it comes to the future of work but how can they do anything if they are burnt out? Emma Djemil gives her personal take on what it’s like being in HR today and offers three practical ways HR professionals can start demanding more for themselves in work

HR wellbeing
“Why are you changing MY policies without my say so?”

I sat, reprimanded like a young child yet fully aware that I’d never seen the policies in question. Despite wishing with every fibre of my being for someone to intervene, the team around me sat quiet, eyes down, protecting themselves from the spotlight. I wondered what my next move should be. Was it finally the time to release all the pent up emotion of the previous few months in which my confidence had been slowly eroded, and if I did, could we cope financially? Would we still get a mortgage? Would I ever get a job again?

Without question, this role was the worst of my career. It was meant to be the pinnacle of everything I’d been working towards but it left me completely broken. HR wasn’t meant to be like this. HR was meant to be about helping people. Where had it gone so wrong? I didn’t see it at the time, but this was the point at which I started to reevaluate what it meant to have a career in HR and whether there was a different way of working that didn’t take so much away from me.

Don’t wait for the worst case

Thankfully, not everyone suffers bullying in HR, but more often than not it will take something serious like bullying, redundancy or ill health for people in HR to actually start to put themselves first. Why is that? Search ‘wellbeing for HR' and there’s lots about how HR can support the wellbeing of others, but rarely will you find resources to support the wellbeing of those in HR. Despite the pandemic providing an opportunity to raise the profession’s profile, many HR professionals are still suffering the effects of the challenges presented. In fact, a survey by Workvivo in April 2022 found 98% of HR professionals are burnt out and just 29% feel that their work is valued.

Our professional bodies, our trade magazines, our events and our qualifications, they’re geared to us supporting other people and setting out what HR should do – ignoring the fundamental fact that for every job title with ‘HR’ in it, there’s a human there too. Of course, we are the profession that can champion better work and working lives but how do we do that when the gap between our potential impact and the day-to-day realities of our role is so big?

The aspiration vs the reality

Take the CIPD’s People Profession 2030: A collective view of future trends for example. It identifies five key themes for people professionals to focus on over the coming decade, with actions ranging from ‘develop future fit skills to thrive in a changing world’ to ‘adapt people functions to reflect a widening remit on corporate social responsibility’. Great! But how does that relate to the standalone HR manager being asked to write and issue contracts while also creating and delivering on a strategy to support organisational growth? Or the HR professional who’s too bogged down in the high case load arising from a toxic organisational culture to even begin to influence the changes that could really make a difference?

And herein lies a big part of the problem. What we ‘should’ do doesn’t often match up to what we’re asked to do in practice. Often, what we want to do doesn’t match up either. We’re set up to believe that HR will be like the aspirational ideal of what enticed us to join the profession in the first place, and receive little support for the reality which is often being at the forefront of the complex and emotionally raw end of working with humans.

As we walk the fine line between getting the right outcome for people and delivering results for our businesses, we adopt coping mechanisms that might see us through each smaller battle, but rage an internal war that raises our defences and erodes our confidence to the point that we feel isolated, unheard and unvalued. None of which, of course, makes a very good starting point for shaping anything, let alone the future of work.

Personal accountability

So many of us are conscious of these issues. We wonder why no one listens. We bemoan that ‘if managers would just do their jobs’ things would be OK. We complain about how we’re always last on the list when it comes to development or support. And it’s true, there are systemic issues in how our workplaces operate that get in the way of our feeling powerful, centred and well at work that we often get front row seats to witness, unlike any other profession. 

What could also be true is that we’re failing to accept personal responsibility for our own experience at work. How often are you putting someone else’s needs before your own? And if you were really truthful with yourself, how often is that because it aligns deeply with the reason you’re in HR in the first place as opposed to a need to prove your value in some way?

Small steps towards big change

There is no judgement in this. We are, of course, only human. But there is no magic wand that’s going to change our experiences of being in HR. Real change, real impact, starts with every single one of us demanding something more for ourselves and actively doing something about it. Here are three practical ways you can do exactly that, starting right now:

  1. Use “yes…subject to”. Frankly, many of us have forgotten that we have as much right to set our priorities and protect our time as everyone else. If you recognise that your time could be better spent elsewhere, but the thought of saying no fills you with dread, say “yes…subject to” instead. Yes…subject to not being available until next week. Yes…subject to de-prioritising something else. Yes…subject to picking the issue up again in the morning because you’ve made plans with your family. Say yes powerfully and on your terms, rather than out of obligation or a misguided sense of what it means to ‘be HR’.
  2. Recognise that being available doesn’t make you valuable. Being a ‘support’ function has morphed into dropping everything and being available for anyone, anytime. In many ways, we feel comfortable knowing that whenever people need us we respond. What is this costing you though? When you choose to do one thing you’re choosing not to do another. Explore what’s behind your resistance to choosing the things that would really make a difference, and check in with how that sits with your personal values. Are you acting in alignment with them, or in conflict? And how do you feel about that?
  3. Elevate yourself. Are you acting like someone who is going to change the world of work? Or are you acting like someone who's a victim to all the things wrong with the world of work as it stands? HR is a tough gig, there’s no getting away from it. It also places you in a prime position to make changes that are going to filter out through generations to come. Are you embodying this power in your daily interactions? And if not, what’s compelling anyone else to believe it’s possible from you, too?

As a community working together, we humans in HR can achieve great things. We can change the world of work for the good of everyone. But we’ll never be able to do this sustainably without first changing how we operate within it.

Emma Djemil, pictured below, is a former people manager and now founder of Be Unstoppable and the HR Club – the career development network for women in HR

Emma Djemil

Published 14 September 2022
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