Workplace Wellbeing

A Heavy Burden—HR Leaders and Emotional Exhaustion in the Workplace

60% of HR leaders say their biggest challenge is emotional exhaustion. Here’s how to prevent compassion fatigue, reduce burnout, and ask for more support.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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A Black woman with short hair working on a tablet in the server room of an office.

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    This is Part 6 of our blog series for People leaders, Managing Uncertainty, Engagement, and Your Own Mental Health.

    Sixty percent of HR leaders report that their biggest challenge, for themselves and their teams, is emotional exhaustion. That’s not surprising considering they’re closely involved with managing the emotional dynamics of employees, along with their own. 

    HR leaders are tasked with functioning as the emotional regulators of a workplace or organization. This is difficult in any context, but throughout the past three years, employees have struggled with uncertainty, isolation, and violence while dealing with grief and so much loss from the global pandemic. 

    At the same time, the workplace has undergone fundamental shifts around the way employees work. There’s been a collective rethinking about the role of work in people’s lives and how this impacts their wellbeing, especially as many organizations faced layoffs, fluctuating growth, hiring freezes, and record lows in employee engagement. 

    HR leaders have been at the forefront of navigating all this complexity and the associated emotional fallout—which can quickly become a dangerous weight. A recent study shows that 98% of HR leaders are burned out, 94% feel overwhelmed, and 88% dread going to work. 

    The cost of compassion fatigue

    HR professionals tend to be empathetic individuals, sensitive to other people’s feelings and emotional states. 

    This is an excellent trait for those who are the emotional bellwether for their workplace. However, this sensitivity can also lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and feeling employee’s difficult emotions in addition to their own. 

    Here are six signs of compassion fatigue for HR leaders:

    • Difficulty feeling empathy from constant exposure to other people’s suffering
    • Feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness when faced with an employee’s suffering
    • Ruminating about the suffering of others, which can turn into anger
    • Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by work
    • A sense of numbness or feeling disconnected from other people’s feelings
    • An inability to display compassion

    Preventing compassion fatigue or finding a path back from that state requires boundary setting, mental health support, a robust self-care practice, and organizational support.

    Combating compassion fatigue and burnout

    I’ve worked at a domestic violence shelter for four years, and I’ve seen a lot of burnout from emotional labor. 

    Being in HR also involves emotional labor, and as we’ve already discussed, people who are drawn to this kind of work are often deeply compassionate and empathetic, ready at a moment’s notice to take on the struggles of their fellow humans. 

    This makes it imperative to put self-care practices, boundaries, and safeguards into place. It’s simply not sustainable to absorb and carry the emotional burdens of others all day, every day, without time or space for renewal.

    Disconnect, so connection remains possible

    To avoid burnout and empathy fatigue, it’s essential to take time to disconnect from any emotional labor that’s required during the workday. And so many employees aren’t doing this. 

    Last year, U.S. employees had an average of 9.5 unused PTO days at the end of the year, and more than half didn’t use all their PTO. On top of that, half of employees say they worked at least one hour a day while on vacation, and 24% worked three hours a day or more.

    To fully show up at work with the capacity for empathy, HR leaders must set personal boundaries. Bringing home the emotional burdens of others and ruminating on it doesn’t allow the recharge time needed for mental and physical restoration. 

    A few ways to disconnect

    For leaders who are working remotely, creating a commute can help you disconnect at the end of the workday and decompress before you begin your evening. 

    For example, you could take a walk, go for a bike ride, work out, or meditate. Anything that gets you out of the physical space where you work and shifts your mindset as well. 

    If you’re commuting to an office or workplace every day, you may be getting some of this processing time on your drive or train home. Consider adding three minutes of deep breathing when you get home, to focus on other things. 

    This takes practice. Whenever your mind returns to work, acknowledge the thought, and then intentionally let it go.

    If you have the energy, you could also take a walk and practice being present, listening to birds singing or the wind rustling through the trees, noticing squirrels playing, and making the transition to your non-work time. 

    The best ways to disconnect will look different for everyone. Find what it takes for you to recenter and recharge.

    Sustaining with self care 

    Paying attention to our bodies throughout the day and noticing what we need is weirdly difficult. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in whatever work or daily crisis is happening at that moment that our needs often come second, third, or not at all.

    This is why regular self care is so important—and this phrase has been bandied about so widely in the past few years, it’s necessary to revisit what it actually is. 

    Self care is not an occasional spa day or picture-perfect moment to share on social media. It's a daily practice that involves nurturing your mind and spirit in a way that enables you to fully connect with the world, with other people, and with the heavy work of emotional labor.

    Putting self care into practice

    Developing a self-care practice means finding ways to take care of your body and mind every single day, especially when it’s hard, and even when it doesn’t feel useful. 

    It’s eating a healthy lunch when you’re slammed at work, setting boundaries with coworkers, and going home or logging off at 5 pm, even when there’s more work to do (because there always is). 

    It’s drinking water throughout the day and taking a short walk during breaks even when—especially when—you feel overwhelmed with how much there is to get done.

    Self care looks different for everyone, and it may change as you go through different phases and stages of life. Practice self care in whatever ways are most useful for your own wellbeing, make it a priority every single day, and start small. 

    Three minutes of deep breathing at your desk, enjoying a cup of tea and a lit candle, five minutes of reading poetry, or eating good, healthy food during or after your workday are all effective ways to take care of yourself. 

    Institutional support for HR leaders

    Only 29% of HR leaders feel like their work is valued by their organization, and 78% are open to leaving their jobs for new opportunities. Additionally, 73% of HR leaders feel that their department is under-resourced and they don’t have the tools to do their work properly. 

    Remember, emotional labor is performed every single day, at every single workplace. For HR leaders to feel equipped to help employees manage difficult emotions and maintain the overall health of a company, they need support in the following areas:

    • Sufficient allocation of resources
    • A seat at the table with C-suite
    • Recognition for the value of emotional labor, and actively seeking out this skill set in new hires and people up for promotion
    • Taking emotional intelligence and the ability to do emotional labor into account when hiring HR leaders and supervisors

    This responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on HR teams. It’s an important and underrecognized skill set for any job.

    Taking care of the emotional caretakers

    Spring Health can help support HR professionals by showing them how to navigate employee emotions and how this affects their own mental health and wellbeing. 

    We offer one-on-one leadership training for dealing with difficult conversations and situations, managing employee emotions, and processing the after effects of heavy emotional labor. 

    Our Care Navigators, who are licensed clinicians, are always available to provide dedicated, therapeutic guidance across the spectrum of need. They might recommend a therapy or coaching session, or an on-demand mindfulness exercise to reduce stress and anxiety at any time throughout the day.

    It’s past time that we recognize how valuable emotional caretakers are in our society, and acknowledge and support that work fully.

    Read this blog next for four ways HR leaders can transform burnout into sustained enthusiasm.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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