These days, burnout seems like an inescapable part of global work culture. The APA reports that over 88 percent of today’s workforce reports experiencing burnout, with 60 percent reporting high levels. In fact, 40 percent of those surveyed by Asana even state that they see burnout as an inevitable part of success.
Burnout has only increased since the pandemic, with work-life balance suffering or even disappearing completely. Despite being new to the workforce, younger generations like Gen Z are experiencing exceptionally high levels of burnout. This is due, in part, to a lack of boundaries between work and personal life and companies’ expectations that people be available for work at all times.
To retain talent, it falls on HR professionals to figure out new and creative ways to reduce stress and keep the workforce engaged and optimistic. And if Gen Z’s tendency to open up about emotions in the workplace is any indicator, this may increasingly require listening to and offering advice about personal issues.
As a result, HR professionals and line managers may feel like they’re taking on the role of a therapist in addition to their other responsibilities. So how can organizations protect HR’s time and set appropriate boundaries while continuing to prioritize the workforce’s mental wellbeing?
Consider the following strategies.
Set clear boundaries and expectations
Even while people-focused organizations strive to increase empathy and transparency, the fact remains that work is work, and people are colleagues. It’s important to communicate that while openness with HR and managers is a priority, it’s still essential to understand and respect boundaries.
Overstepping these conversational boundaries with colleagues, managers, and HR can disrupt team coherency and productivity. It can also be a major contributor to HR and managers’ burnout. To that end, it’s important to set concrete, written boundaries about what is and what is not appropriate for your organization so people know what the company expects of them.
Create guidelines for HR that clearly outline how to handle overstepping boundaries
Codifying guidelines dedicated to setting boundaries is critical. As people people, it’s easy for HR—and even some managers—to put 100 percent into helping their teams. But too much involvement in people’s personal affairs can be unethical and present a conflict of interest. Company guidelines can help HR and managers handle instances when employees overstep boundaries while remaining sensitive to their needs.
Of course, some cases are more clear-cut than others. If a team member reports abuse or misbehavior by a manager to HR (or by a colleague to a manager), it’s the company’s responsibility to take action. This can mean giving people warnings, taking internal disciplinary action, ending professional relationships, etc.
But it’s another matter if someone repeatedly approaches HR or their direct manager about non-work related stressors. While openness about personal circumstances that may affect productivity or behavior is important, it’s also essential for people to understand the limitation of their workplace’s ability to handle personal issues.
The best guidelines clarify what topics are beyond the purview of HR or managers. They also outline what actions to take when people bring up topics like these in conversation.
For example, some options include:
- Stating that the issue is inappropriate to discuss with a colleague or a manager/HR
- Explaining why maintaining professional boundaries is vital for the success of the company and for maintaining a respectful work environment
- Politely redirecting the conversation to work-related topics
- Identifying if it may be beneficial to refer the team member to healthcare and wellness benefit offerings such as mental health services
Make use of employee wellness initiatives
In light of the proliferation of employee burnout, health and wellness programs are more critical than ever. Offering robust mental health benefits can give people the support they need from professionals who are appropriately trained to do so, helping to relieve the burden on HR and maintain appropriate boundaries in the workplace. Furthermore, HR professionals and managers who are overwhelmed by their responsibilities can also take advantage of these benefits to lighten the load.
Many companies have found the following wellness and mental health programs to be cost-effective and successful benefit offerings for their people:
- More flexible schedules to promote work-life balance
- Paid mental health days people can take as needed
- Paid subscriptions to meditation and fitness classes and apps
- Mental health training on education on self-care and handling burnout
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Introduce an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
While HR and managers cannot give people struggling with mental health the support they need, they can refer them to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) explicitly designed to provide solution-focused support to people dealing with a range of personal or work-related concerns. EAPs may include a variety of services, including:
- Counseling and therapy services
- Referrals to external resources, such as mental health providers, financial advisors, legal services, and other community resources
- Crisis intervention
- Assistance with managing work-life balance issues, such as child or elder care, time management, and other personal and work-related concerns
EAPs are a fantastic option because they allow people to get the help they need from specialists trained to offer it. These professionals are also sufficiently separated from the organization to avoid a conflict of interest. This helps maintain appropriate boundaries and relieves the burden on HR and managers while addressing team members’ problems head-on.
Become leaders in relationship management
As the HR role grows and its responsibilities expand, relationship management emerges as a key function. While HR professionals may be asked to play the role of therapist, it is different from what they are trained to (or should be expected to) do, especially as it presents issues of ethics and conflicts of interest.
Instead, HR can set boundaries and aim to coach rather than counsel. This includes practicing active listening and empathy while conveying professionalism and remaining respectful. Clarifying your own boundaries and limitations can set appropriate expectations and allow you to create the professional yet open and supportive work environment necessary in the modern working world.