Exhausted? Feeling cynical or negative? Checking out? It’s not just you—especially if you’re an HR professional. As much as burnout today is a global experience, even recognized by the World Health Organization, it has taken an especially serious toll on the very people who are deeply concerned with occupational well-being: human resources professionals.1 So, what’s led to the widespread HR burnout?
The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented changes to the way we work. The toll of remote and hybrid work, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, layoffs, talent shortage, increased concern for employee wellness, and the global recession have seemed to fall squarely on the shoulders of the HR department. Unsurprisingly, 86% of HR leaders experienced increased stress in 2021, 53% are burned out, and 48% are looking for a new job.2 Too much change too quickly with too few resources and security may lie at the root of why 44% of HR leaders say their stress has increased “dramatically” in the past year.
HR burnout impacts companywide well-being. The job duties of HR leaders encompass everything to do with people, including hiring, onboarding, safety, learning and development, firing, and the execution of other operational procedures.3 When HR professionals spend their time trying to boost companywide well-being, they sometimes pay with their own. Reduced professional efficacy in this sphere has a trickle-down effect to other employees, similar to how caregiver burnout affects dependents.
Read on to learn why the personality characteristics that make HR professionals excellent at their work also dispose them to burnout—and how organizations can help protect them.
Characteristics of HR Leaders
Using the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Development Survey (HDS), and Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI), we have analyzed the personality characteristics of HR employees and HR leaders, including HR managers and HR executives. Our data tell a fascinating story.
HR employees are responsible for benefits plans, compensation packages, training and development, and other personnel-related duties. They must anticipate problems and manage conflict effectively. Because they also ensure compliance with legal guidelines, they must readily adhere to standards and possess excellent communication skills. Since the role of HR can directly impact employee productivity and well-being, it is essential that HR duties are executed well.
HPI – HR employees tend to be good at listening to others and supporting teams, but they may also struggle with resilience and handling day-to-day stress. These characteristics are reflected in their tendency to score lower on the Adjustment and Ambition scales on average.
HDS – HR employees tend to manage their insecurities through intimidation or avoidance when under stress, though normally they are likely passionate, insightful, and kind. Derailing behavior can emerge when an everyday strength becomes overused during times of burnout. Someone who is typically careful and thorough might become risk-averse and fearful of failure, for example.
MVPI – HR employees tend to be uninterested in competition (lower Power scores), prefer to work alone (lower Affiliation), and prefer stable, predictable, low-risk work environments (lower Security). Their preferences for making decisions democratically, focusing on tasks, and maintaining structure probably have been challenged every workday during the unpredictable recent past.
HR leaders differ from HR employees in both personality characteristics and job tasks, which have a greater focus on corporate strategy, policy, and compliance. Based on our analysis of more than 1,000 HR leaders, we have identified the characteristics that tend to differentiate HR leaders from other global professionals.4
HPI – HR leaders tend to take the lead and push for results, get along with others and avoid conflict, and focus on procedure and implementation. Their HPI personality data suggest they typically show strengths in operational leadership as opposed to strategic leadership.
HDS – HR leaders differ by rank in how they tend to overuse their strengths. When under stress, HR executives may seem arrogant, impulsive, eccentric, or untrustworthy. They might use intimidation or charm to manage their problems. HR managers, on the other hand, may seem perfectionistic, micromanaging, deferential, or ingratiating when under stress. They might tend to avoid directly confronting their problems.4
MVPI – HR leaders tend to desire helping others (higher Altruistic) and enjoying both work and life (higher Hedonism). They typically prefer to make decisions based on experience and instinct rather than objective data (lower Science).
HR Professionals and Burnout
The personality characteristics that make HR professionals successful at their jobs make them likely to burn out—regardless of whether they find their work rewarding or meaningful. According to Deloitte research, “87% of professionals surveyed say they have passion for their current job, but 64% say they are frequently stressed, dispelling the myth that passionate employees are immune to stress or burnout.”5 That HR professionals may still feel passionate about their role does not shield them from unmanaged chronic workplace stress.
HPI – Of the seven HPI scales, all seven of them are associated with burnout. While high scores and low scores both have positives and negatives, lower HPI scores tend to indicate higher likelihood of burnout. Two scales have particularly strong associations with burnout: lower scores on Adjustment and on Ambition, which data indicate are characteristic of HR professionals. Based on their HPI scores, HR employees may be particularly susceptible to burnout.
HDS – HR employees, managers, and leaders alike can be disposed to burning out depending on their HDS scores. High scores on this inventory show overused strengths and derailing tendencies. Of the 11 scales, eight are closely associated with burnout. Depending on the specific scale, a lower score or a higher score is correlated to burnout. HR employees seem especially likely to experience burnout based on their HDS data.
MVPI – Lower average scores on the Power, Altruistic, and Affiliation scales are associated with burnout for HR professionals. Because HR professionals tend to be uninterested in competition, value tasks and productivity, and prefer to work independently, their preferred professional environment also disposes them to burnout.
The tasks of HR professionals have not only changed dramatically in the last couple of years in response to remote work, but they have also come to the forefront of many companies’ strategy and forecasting. The lack of stability, staff, and supplies all serve to increase the stress of HR professionals, who may worry about productivity or accomplishing tasks. Adding to that the burden of setting new standards, raising morale, complying with changing policies, and addressing culture needs, it is no surprise that the professionals who care for others also need support.
Protecting HR Professionals from Burnout
Individual HR professionals can mitigate burnout by understanding how their personality characteristics might contribute to derailment. Personality assessment is the first step in gaining knowledge and beginning development.
Organizations can protect HR professionals from burnout by providing then with adequate technology, tools, budget, personnel, and executive support. According to Forbes, “HR departments report being underresourced with 73% saying they don’t have the tools and resources they need to do their job well.”7 When nearly three-quarters of HR professionals need more resources to perform their essential job functions, it’s unsurprising that they are experiencing ongoing stress at and about work. To a group of people who strongly prefer a stable work environment and dislike ambiguity (according to their higher scores on the MVPI Security scale), the disposition to plan, make careful decisions, minimize risk, and emphasize procedure may feel especially frustrating when they are also ill-equipped and understaffed.
Individuals can also protect themselves from burnout by leveraging strategic self-awareness to cope with stress in ways that will assuage underlying fears, stressors, or insecurities. In general, adequate sleep, moderate daily exercise, outdoor recreation, family activities or hobbies, and setting boundaries for work hours have helped other HR professionals manage stress, who report that their roles have changed significantly since 2020.6 Strategic self-awareness comes into play when someone who scores high on Reserved, for example, schedules solitary lunchtime walks to regain emotional balance after mornings full of video calls.
HR burnout is prevalent and serious, but it isn’t an insurmountable challenge. Overcoming burnout among HR professionals starts with understanding the organizational effects of personality.
- World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “Occupational Phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
- Mayer, K. (2022, February 24). Burnout and Resignations Are Rampant in HR. What Leaders Need to Know. Human Resources Executive. https://hrexecutive.com/burnout-and-resignations-are-rampant-in-hr-what-leaders-need-to-know/
- Job Descriptions: Human Resource Manager. SHRM.. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/job-descriptions/pages/human-resource-manager.aspx
- Sherman, R. A., & Lemming, M. R. (2021, September 17). Who Becomes an HR Leader? Talent Quarterly. https://www.talent-quarterly.com/who-becomes-an-hr-leader/
- Fisher, J. (2018). Workplace Burnout Survey. Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/burnout-survey.html
- Ladika, S. (2022, March 14). Burnout Is a Problem for HR Professionals. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/spring2022/pages/hr-practitioners-are-coping-with-burnout.aspx
- Kelly, J. (2022, April 14). 98% of HR Professionals Are Burned Out, Study Shows. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2022/04/14/98-of-human-resources-professionals-are-burned-out-study-shows/