Who’s helping HR in the stress pandemic?

HR has been supporting the workforce through stress, but how can it recharge its batteries?

The combined forces of Covid, an uncertain economy and Brexit have put pressure on countless workplaces. HR has been on the front line of helping employees to cope, but who looks after HR as the stress mounts? Steve Arnold looks at why the function needs to call on its own support network.

Whole sectors are still reeling from the stresses of the past months, and it’s not all Covid. From personal health concerns to nationwide financial strains and Brexit preparations to boot, businesses have had to navigate a year of challenges from every angle.

It’s no surprise then that our recent data revealed that stress-related absences were up by 64% across all industries in 2020.

Our data shows that the sectors struggling most with stress-related sickness are unsurprisingly healthcare (0.64 days of stress related absence on average per employee), followed by government and international affairs (0.57 days on average per employee).

Beyond fighting on the frontline of the pandemic, healthcare has long been managing stretched resourcing while simultaneously promoting the importance of workplace wellbeing on a national scale. This sector suffered a concerning 145% increase in stress-related absence, which may not come as a surprise as the woes of those working in healthcare have been making front page news for years.

Similarly, those in government and international affairs have long been navigating a precarious political climate. And, Brexit came to a head in conjunction with the second wave – a heightened amount of stress was no surprise.

What about HR?

One thing that every business sector has in common is the identity of who they turn to for support in the midst of a stress pandemic – HR. Regardless of the sector, HR’s role as the backbone of the workforce, providing continued support and business continuity to a virtual workforce, cannot be overstated.

Despite being the department that champions employee wellbeing, it seems that bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on how we work has left HR reeling in a stress pandemic of its own.

Data shows that there was a 70% increase in stress-related leave per user in HR alone, with the sector ranking third on the list of those suffering most. In the midst of all this, who’s helping HR?

With much of the focus on how HR can provide the necessary consistent support and resources to the workforce, it’s easy to overlook the support that HR itself needs in order to be effective within the business too.

Making sure HR teams take regular breaks from work and look after their own wellbeing, as well as being transparent about staff sickness, are crucial to ensure businesses do not sweep absence under the carpet.

Covid stress syndrome

HR professionals will be all too aware of the ways this pandemic has and continues to affect the mental health of the workforce.

Feelings are exacerbated by the pandemic, from fear of danger and contamination to heightened checking and reassurance-seeking. These all feed into each other and arguably contribute to what some describe as a rapidly spreading Covid stress syndrome.

The spread of this knock-on stress pandemic puts HR on the frontline in supporting and treating the workforce to minimise its effects.

There are also the perhaps less obvious effects that can snowball into a logistical HR headache (for example, holiday booking admin has doubled in the past year with the amount of holiday booked and subsequently cancelled rising from 6% to 12%).

With such a huge increase in workload throughout 2020 and the navigation of multiple lockdowns on the worldwide workforce, it really is no wonder stress levels spiked.

Lead by example

Research has shown in the past that productivity loss resulting from presenteeism is approximately three times more than that caused by absenteeism.

In the long run, this actually causes more of a productivity slump and simply sets up the groundwork for HR to deal with a second crisis post-Covid. HR should know this better than any other department within the business.

Business and HR leaders have a responsibility to look after themselves as well as looking after others – how can they be expected to minimise stress-levels across their company if they themselves are battling burnout on a daily basis?

Company culture has a responsibility to encourage a healthy balance of productivity and downtime. If the buck stops with HR, they can demonstrate that booking time off for some much needed downtime shouldn’t come with a fear of appearing lazy or being unable to cope.

The past year has demonstrated that time off doesn’t have to be spent travelling, keeping active or even keeping one eye on your work emails: sometimes we just need to switch off in the interest of our own health and long-term productivity.

Yes, a huge responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of HR, and this is set to continue into 2021, but in order to carry the load they need to be operating to the best of their ability.

The truth is that during this pandemic most people are probably working more than ever, and HR professionals themselves need to call in support services to help.

Automate where possible

In addition to the promotion of wellbeing, ensuring that HR departments are equipped with the right tools is also key in supporting the reduction of stress.

For example, if the department is battling with a manual spreadsheet to manage furlough and juggling separate systems to manage changes in lockdown restrictions that impact the business, the stress and pressure of this coordination will drain the entire departmental resources.

The very definition of stress is when expectation is higher than the capacity to deliver, so if you can open up that capacity using automation and other HR technologies to cut down on the admin, it’s possible to free up time and reduce the reliance and pressure on the humans involved.

This time can be used much more wisely to provide real human support for growth, upskilling teams, and focusing on the wider business strategy.

If the HR focus is on being able to support employees that are working remotely, these processes need to be echoed in a company-wide values at the heart of every day operations and especially championed by those that have designed them. After all, where would we be without HR?

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