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HR leaders are getting battered by crises—and it’s leading to burnout and higher turnover

Rogerson: Courtesy of Canva; Canney: Courtesy of ServiceNow; Rajgopal: Courtesy of PayPal

“How would you describe your current mental capacity as an HR head?” That’s the question Matt Summers, global head of leadership at the consulting firm NeuroLeadership Institute, posed to the CHRO of a large California-based tech firm earlier this year. She described it as trying to drive a Formula 1 car in downtown Manhattan during rush hour—blindfolded.

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CHROs are tired. Three years past the pandemic’s U.S. start, burnout among people leaders is high. The health crisis, closely followed by intense economic uncertainty, has caused higher turnover in the HR function as people leaders battling their own mental health challenges are also held responsible for the organization’s well-being. It’s a mounting issue for companies that depend on CHROs to be high-performance engines, serving as partners between management and the workforce, says Summers. However, many feel they’ve been capped at the knee, overwhelmed by constant firefighting and shrinking HR teams.

“We're being more reactive than proactive. More responsive than innovative. And we're not collaborating as an HR function or tapping into our best innovative thinking,” Summers says.

It’s a matter that's also been top of mind for PayPal’s EVP of people and sourcing, Kausik Rajgopal. He cites overwork, fatigue, lack of perspective, and premature resignation as side effects of burnout among leaders. And employees are noticing.

“As a leader, employees draw their cues from you. Both from what you say and what you don't say, as well as how you come across,” he tells Fortune. In essence, HR burnout can reverberate through an organization, spreading like wildfire.

Competing priorities

It’s almost cliché at this point to say CHROs are spread thin. But much of the recent uptick in HR burnout stems from the vast expansion of what falls within their remit and ongoing crises that directly affect talent strategy: the pandemic, vaccination requirements, return-to-office plans, social justice protests, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, inflation, and layoffs.

Summers says today’s HR leaders are pulled in several directions, simultaneously focused on the global macroeconomic decline, the waning health crisis, flexible work policies, and attracting and retaining talent amid cross-industry job cuts.

It’s a tough role that often receives little fanfare when businesses are doing well. But in times of corporate turmoil, HR heads are thrust into the spotlight, acting as fixers. Resultantly, a growing number of people leaders are heading for the exits.

Last year, NPR’s CHRO, Carrie Storer, stepped down, stating that she needed to spend time with her family following the pandemic. She’s not the only one; there have been an avalanche of retirements across the function. UPS announced in September 2022 that its EVP and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, Charlene Thomas, who formerly served as HR chief, would retire after 34 years of service. PepsiCo’s CHRO Ronald Schellekens, Kohl’s CPO Marc Chini, and Walmart’s EVP and CPO Julie Murphy also announced retirements.

In 2021, the turnover rate among Fortune 200 CHROs was 16%, according to the Talent Strategy Group's 2022 report. That’s an 11% increase in turnover from 2020, and the figure is now likely higher, some HR heads predict.

Today's CHROs point to deteriorating mental health as the primary reason for their swifter departures—a trend seen across the C-suite. Nearly 70% of C-suite leaders in a Deloitte survey say they’ve considered quitting their jobs in favor of new opportunities that better support their well-being, and 40% say they always or often feel overwhelmed in their roles. Twenty-six percent report struggling with depression, versus 23% for employees.

Within HR, stress is even more acute. Forty-two percent of people teams report struggling with too many projects and responsibilities, according to a survey from HR software company Lattice. Over 60% of those who report exhaustion say it’s due to overwork, while some 40% attribute it to a lack of headcount needed to achieve their goals.

The organizational risk

“Executives who experience burnout can be reluctant to admit it and even more reluctant to ask for direct help or support to change potentially broken systems or ways of working,” says Karyn Twaronite, EY’s global vice chair of DEI. “This comes from a place of high standards for their company, and even higher for themselves, and not wanting to let their stakeholders or their people down.”

That’s a problem because burnout has a tangible impact on the bottom line. By some estimates, rampant burnout costs U.S. employers a total of $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity, according to a Gallup study. HR leaders, who are a cross-departmental touchpoint, can also inadvertently pass along feelings of burnout. “What we can sometimes fail to see is that we may not be modeling good sustainable behavior, nor are we creating safe spaces for authentic dialogue about feelings, stresses, or challenges,” says Twaronite.

It’s something that Jacqui Canney, chief people officer at enterprise software company ServiceNow, says she’s observed firsthand. “When we try to push through the warning signs, we see higher levels of turnover, lower productivity, and even difficulty managing teams,” she shares. “In HR especially, our people see us as culture champions, which is great when we’re feeling good. When we’re burned out, the risk is that the whole company feels it.”

Summers points out that when HR leaders feel rushed or overwhelmed in their decision–making, they default to what he terms automatic and isolated thinking—acting alone without the input or consideration of others. That can lead to unintentional biases. HR leaders' most valued skills, such as collaboration, objectivity, and innovation, also tend to get pruned when leaders are in distress.

“If I'm operating as an HR executive in a highly reactive environment, I'm defaulting to the subjective and emotional first before I access that circuitry in the brain that's more objective and collaborative,” says Summers. “It's rational versus irrational thinking.”

Delightfully disconnected 

CHROs tend to be a reflective cohort, and many say they’re trying to counteract the effects of burnout.

Canney tries to take time off following all major events, conferences, and busy periods. “I’ve experienced workload challenges and anxiety throughout my career. And as leaders, it can be easy to deprioritize how we are doing and feeling. But that doesn’t help us or our teams,” she admits. “We need to take formal breaks and walk the walk by taking—and I mean truly taking—PTO.”

She’s also created new structures to better distribute her workload, including investing in a project management office to ensure smoother handoffs between teams and easier execution of large projects. “By optimizing how we work, we are optimizing how we feel about the work we do.”

Discerning what projects are a value add and which aren't allows HR leaders and their staff to regain control. Otherwise, “leaders just add more and more to their strategic plans, or they become paralyzed because of the ambiguity and stop making decisions,” says Shelley Winter, chief content officer at Accenture’s leadership strategy firm YSC Consulting.

Outside the workplace, HR executives are extinguishing their sense of enervation by picking up activities that help them disconnect. Rajgopal relies on his one-minute meditation practice and hiking to rebalance himself. Allison Rutledge-Parisi, SVP of people at HR technology platform Justworks, is an avid runner and requires a full night of sleep. She says detachment is critical to staving off burnout no matter how committed she feels to a job. "You have to have other things in your life.”

Canva’s global head of people, Jennie Rogerson, also attests to being “ruthless” with her calendar. “I'm fairly introverted, which for a head of people is a bit strange,” she says. “I find it really exhausting if I'm in back-to-back meetings, especially on Zoom.” Rogerson has kept Wednesdays meeting-free since January 2020 and tries to adhere to Canva’s “sacred lunches,” meant to encourage employees to take a midday break.

Like many other leaders, she has come to find how easy it is for the organization to mirror her behavior—good or bad. Solving that issue starts at the executive level.

“I say ‘no’ to many meetings,” says Rogerson. “I'm as ruthless as possible with getting as many meetings as possible off my calendar, giving myself those big breaks, and trying to get outside as much as I can with that free time."

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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