Emotional labour has always been part and parcel of the HR function. However, to prevent long-lasting harm and build resilience, a suite of emotional load management tools is required.
When Avril Henry was the HR director of a global bank, a devastating fire at the organisation’s Christmas party in New Zealand resulted in deaths and serious burn injuries. Henry, a self-described pragmatist, immediately went into problem solving mode.
“Within less than 24 hours, I organised grief counsellors, set up links with the New Zealand government and kept the headquarters in New York updated,” she says.
Although most of the Australasian region’s executive team was on hand, the load primarily fell on Henry.
“They all had their office doors closed because they didn’t know how to deal with it,” she says.
One of the employees who passed away was from the Sydney office, and Henry and her team had to absorb and manage the trauma of their colleagues while keeping a brave face.
After 12 days of keeping herself together, Henry “collapsed in a heap” by the time Christmas Eve came around.
As the people experts, it often falls on HR to manage emotionally fraught situations. These complex people matters can range from the extreme, such as Henry’s experience, to more run-of-the-mill situations, including performance issues and terminations.
No matter the case, the cumulative impact of managing employees’ emotional needs day in, day out can take its toll.
“People are constantly offloading their anger, frustration and disenfranchisement with their organisation’s leadership on HR,” says Henry, who is also a leadership advisor and executive coach.
HR’s role became more complex during the COVID-19 pandemic, with workforces increasingly relying on the profession to navigate their new working environments.
Supporting people through significant mental health issues also became par for the course, and it’s no easier post-pandemic, with the cost-of-living crisis, rumblings of a recession and redundancies causing never-ending stress.
This has left the profession in the position of grappling with an unprecedented level of ‘emotional labour’.
What contributes to HR’s emotional load?
Conceived by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983, emotional labour is defined as the unrecognised work people do in the workplace or home to run a well-oiled machine with an unwavering smile.
But there are risks that come with the need to consistently regulate emotional expressions around others, says Mark Oostergo, Director and Principal Psychologist at PsySafe.
“Trying to put people at ease, connect or be empathetic can be exhausting,” he says.
“The impact of that exposure can be cumulative in nature. The more exposed we are, the greater the risk of adverse impacts.”
When emotional load starts to take effect, the early warning signs manifest as compromised wellbeing.
“It might be a change in behaviour, or feeling more disengaged or fatigued,” says Oostergo.
“People are constantly offloading their anger, frustration and disenfranchisement with their organisation’s leadership on HR.” – Avril Henry, HR leader and leadership advisor
Without intervention, excess emotional labour can lead to compassion fatigue, resulting in detachment and a reduced sense of empathy.
“Burnout could also occur, leading to exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy,” he says.
Evidence indicates the cracks are already starting to show. The recent 2023 State of the Human Resource Profession report, the work of academics at RMIT, Deakin, the University of South Australia and Swinburne, found turnover among HR professionals is significantly increasing, with almost half of respondents having been in their current position for less than two years.
The importance of dedicated HR support networks
To protect psychosocial health and safety from the impacts of emotional labour, a preventative approach is required.
“This could include strategies such as job-crafting or task-switching, so the HR workforce is not constantly exposed to emotional demands,” says Oostergo.
Professional supervision could also play an important role in reducing the burden of emotional labour. This is mandatory in the psychology profession, and Oostergo thinks there are significant opportunities for other professions with similar levels of emotional load – including HR – to co-opt the model.
Aspects that might be discussed in consultations could include the active workplace issues you’re working on and how you are working through them.
“It also provides an opportunity to reflect on your coping mechanisms, whether you’ve had any emotional reactions and how to process them,” he says.
“It’s an old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved,” says Oostergo. “Being able to talk about it in a confidential way can help you gain insights into an issue.”
However, it’s important to keep in mind that these sessions are not a replacement for professional support, such as counselling.
Learning to set boundaries and disconnect from work
People in human-centred roles such as HR are well-versed in the importance of self-care and work-life balance. But when you’re used to putting others first, practising what you preach is easier said than done. In a recent ongoing LinkedIn poll by HRM, 92 per cent of the nearly 300 respondents (at the time of publishing) said they found it hard to maintain work-life balance as an HR professional either often or sometimes.
Henry, who was part of the founding team of R U OK Day?, says a key principle behind the initiative is making sure you’re okay before you try to help someone else.
“A really important message for HR is that you need to take care of your mental, physical and emotional health so you can do the same for others,” she says. “It’s not selfish to exercise self-care. It’s important for you to be effective in your job.”
A key self-care strategy is having a contingency plan in place so you have tools to lean back on, says Oostergo.
“For example, if my primary coping mechanism is exercise, but I’m travelling and can’t get to the gym, how do I make sure I have something else to maintain self-care, so I’m not having that extra glass of wine?”
Carving out time is also key to keeping up with self-care. Diarise it and don’t allow it to be booked over,” says Oostergo.
Engaging with others in self-care activities can help too.
“For example, if I’m exercising with someone, I’m more likely to [show up] and follow through so I don’t let them down.”
If you’re new to self-care, starting small can help you enact long-term behavioural change.
“It might be as simple as, ‘I need to get my shoes on to go for a run,’ rather than thinking about running 10 kilometres,” says Oostergo.
“It’s about thinking of the first steps you need to get going.”
You work in HR because you want to solve problems, not get accolades – but a little appreciation never goes astray.” – Avril Henry, HR leader and leadership advisor
Another strategy to reduce the impact of emotional labour is setting firm boundaries, which includes having self-awareness and insight around what your boundaries are and being clear on what that looks like in practice. What can help in this pursuit is reflecting on your roles and responsibilities.
“As an HR professional, think about whether you need to engage with certain information to perform your role and responsibilities,” he says. “If you don’t, consider why you are [engaging]. There’s a need for assertiveness around what your boundaries are, and how you enforce them.”
New ways to tackle workplace issues
A key part of supporting people is demonstrating empathy. But distinguishing between cognitive and emotional empathy is essential, says Oostergo.
“Think about emotional empathy as what it’s like to feel like you’re in someone else’s shoes, and cognitive empathy as [knowing] what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes,” he says. “It’s important to remain in the thinking space, whether that’s keeping it factual or writing things down.”
It helps to develop self-awareness around triggers that might lead to an emotional response, allowing you to recognise them early.
“If I’ve been exposed to sexual harassment before, for example, supporting someone through that is more likely to trigger an emotional response,” says Oostergo.
When triggering events arise, he suggests acknowledging the emotions and taking a deep breath to align sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems through controlled breathing.
Compartmentalising can also stave off the ongoing impacts of emotional labour.
“I ask people I coach to tell themselves, ‘This is a problem I’m helping to solve, but it’s not my problem. Therefore, I should be putting mental energy into it, not emotional energy,’” says Henry.
Henry takes a ‘4Ws, 1H’ approach (What, Why, When, Who, How), which asks: What is the problem? Why has it occurred? When does it need to be solved? Who needs to be involved? How are we going to solve it?
“If you’ve got a framework, you tend to focus more on the problem and problem-solving than on the emotions,” she says.
HR is increasingly becoming a more proactive and strategic profession. The State of HR report indicated that HR is shifting to a more advisory role by helping line managers take on tasks traditionally fulfilled by HR.
Most respondents said their HR teams operated this way, with only 13 per cent still taking on all HR management responsibilities.
In Henry’s view, a key role for HR has always been enabling line managers to deal with problems more effectively.
“People would come to me with a problem – for example, poor performance and bad behaviour – and say, ‘Can you solve this?’” she says. “I’d say, ‘I can, but I won’t because this person is on your team.’”
Henry’s approach is to coach and support line managers to conduct difficult conversations and solve problems within their own team.
“Coaching is an essential HR skill,” says Henry. “I strongly recommend senior HR people do a coaching accreditation to provide managers with the right tools.”
Coaching is about knowing how to ask open questions to gather valuable information, active listening, observing body language to hear “what is not said”, and helping people draw conclusions about what action to take next.
‘It’s all about listening and guiding, not doing it for them,’ she says.
Alleviate emotional load by creating a culture of appreciation
So other areas of the workforce understand the emotional load HR bears, Oostergo suggests engaging in proactive psychosocial risk management to identify the unique demands and potential risks of these roles.
There are several ways risk assessments can be conducted, including through surveys, focus groups, stakeholder interviews and job observation.
This assists the development of interventions that support the workforce across the employee lifecycle, starting at the recruitment phase by evaluating whether you’re considering the psychological demands of roles you’re looking to fill.
“Then, through the onboarding phase, are you raising people’s potential to meet those demands?” he says. “When there’s appreciation of the demands people are under, it helps to support them in their roles so they can be the best versions of themselves at work.”
Fostering a culture of appreciation for HR should begin with the senior HR executives, says Henry.
“When someone did a good job, I would put a handwritten note on their desk thanking them for their help to finish a project on time or putting extra hours into an annual review, and pop a gift voucher or movie tickets in the envelope.”
The resulting impact was a team that felt valued, recognised and seen.
“Working in HR can be a thankless job. You work in HR because you want to solve problems, not get accolades – but a little appreciation never goes astray.”
This article first appeared in the 2023 October/November edition of HRM Magazine.
For more tips on managing stress, striking a harmonious work-life balance and elevating your overall wellbeing, join AHRI’s Balance and Boundaries at Work webinar on 19 October. Register now.