HR Burnout - hands folded at a desk

HR Burnout – What is it and why is it happening (now more than ever)?


The term “burnout” is one that you may have heard around the office, especially in the past 19 months. But what does it mean exactly? According to the definition from mental health and wellness website, “burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” While it’s a fairly new term, it’s one that has become increasingly relevant in today’s work environments.

In this 3-part series, Career Contacts is taking a deep dive into HR burnout to explore what it is, why it’s happening now more than ever, and how it’s effecting HR departments everywhere. Most importantly, we are deep diving into what we can do to combat it.

Workplaces all over the world have been affected in countless ways by the pandemic. It’s changed everything from how we work, with new health and safety protocols updating day-to-day, to where we work, as many offices transition to working remotely part or even full time. It’s affected just about every aspect of the average workday and has left offices in a constant state of unrelenting change.  

Greater Workload

During the course of the last (nearing) two years, employers and employees alike have faced numerous challenges that have come along with the whirlwind of change that has ensued. The employees that are perhaps feeling the pressure the most during this time are the ones who are staying on top of and introducing all of these changes – your office’s Human Resources team. HR professionals worldwide have had to shift from dealing with the stress of their normal workload, to now taking on all of the challenges that COVID has brought with it, in addition.

hr burnout - a row of empty desk cubicles

Lack of precedent or opportunity for training

Challenges like transitioning to remote work, lay-offs, re-hires, surveys, distributing top-down messages, and business-wide updates have all been added to the plate of the HR department. This has created a huge impact on HR divisions, with the biggest impact being on businesses with small Human Resources departments who have been bombarded with additional work that can only be divided between a team of two, sometimes even one person. The sheer volume of work that has been added into the mix for HR teams is made more difficult by the many layoffs within every department, including their own. Not only are they often required to oversee aspects of layoffs and off-boarding for other branches, but they then have to deal with the aftermath of the company and their own department being short staffed as well. This has led to many HR leaders feeling overwhelmed and as if they are always playing catch-up on their workload.

Additionally, being that all of these changes have been brought on without any precedent or warning, Human Resources teams have had to be the voice on issues and topics that are new both to them and to the rest of the world. They are being asked to perform at an ultra-high level with little background knowledge about the plethora of new information being presented to them. In other words – they are having to deliver breaking news constantly with no context on how this will affect the staff, and the workplace as a whole.

Without access to mentors to guide them, courses to teach them, and previous cases to draw from, HR is often asked to make the call without truly knowing what the consequences of the outcomes may be.

This creates an added burden of accountability that goes beyond the usual ask of HR and people and culture professionals.

The go between

The toll of acting as a messenger between employees and employers has also become a heavier load to bear since the beginning of the pandemic. Navigating how to filter down messages from managers to employees has always been one of the many challenging aspects of an HR professional’s position, but this too has dramatically changed in the past 19 months. Passing on company-wide messages and updates about everything from where, how, and when employees work comes with nuances, especially in stressful times. HR leaders have had to be the ones to pass on and enforce these updates from upper management, while also delicately balancing and responding to the feelings of their fellow employees. For HR personnel this means ensuring that they have a huge capacity for being empathetic to the concerns of the leaders of the company and their needs, as well as creating space for employees to voice their concerns and on-going questions.

Questions of new safety protocol and procedures, working from home versus working from the office, and numerous concerns about both all have been raised consistently and with much tension surrounding them. Acting as the “middle-man” responsible for answering these questions and relaying messages from the top has been a huge undertaking for HR departments who have also had to stay up to date with the ever-changing flow of breaking news surrounding the pandemic as well. Many HR leaders have felt that they have been in a constant state of back-and-forth, assisting on everything from consulting with employers and managers on new health guidelines and how to initiate next steps, as well as counseling employees on all of the updates and working with them to make them feel safe and heard. This would be a big ask in any situation but then add the emotional aspects that the pandemic has brought with it and it’s easy to see why HR teams are feeling burnt out.

So, what does this all mean for our HR teams? In our next 2 blogs, we will be unpacking more about HR burnout and the elements that are adding fuel to the burnout flames including hiring/staffing during a global health crisis, working from the office vs. remote work, burnout’s effects on mental health, and what we can do to combat and prevent it.

To learn more, be sure to stay tuned to our blog and follow us on LinkedIn for more HR tips and resources!