On the Edge: Pandemic Weighs Heavy on the Human Resources Profession

Deep in the trenches of the pandemic sit human resources professionals.

Frazzled, tired (exhausted really) and trying desperately to stay positive, HR teams across the country experienced the pandemic in a totally different way than most of us.

“It’s hard to see HR people so burned out. You see someone who’s been in a job a year, maybe two, they’re getting burned out and getting new positions,” said Elizabeth Williams, corporate HR director for Arotech Corporation in Ann Arbor. “It comes down to that last straw that breaks the camel’s back, that really breaks the person’s spirit.

“The antidote is giving them empathy, recognition and words of encouragement and support,” she added. “Tell them they did a great job in spite of the horrible circumstances. I don’t think HR has gotten a lot of credit and I think during the pandemic they really shined. It took a pandemic to show it.”

In March 2020, HR departments everywhere scrambled to process layoffs and furloughs. According to Pew Research Center, about 9.6 million workers aged 16-64 lost their jobs due to COVID-19, causing the U.S. unemployment rate to jump from 3.8% in 2019 to 8.6% in 2020. Behind every pink slip was an HR worker trying to keep up.

Now, it’s the opposite. HR can’t hire enough people fast enough. And in addition to not being able to find enough talent, pandemic protocols have polarized the workplace, leading to more employee issues that need mediation.

Talent shortage
According to Jennifer Martines, executive vice president, HR and Marketing for FreeStar Financial, the last 18 months have been busy.

“It’s been tough. We’re similar to just about every other industry because we’re all competing for the same talent pool. Sometimes it’s just how you stand out whenever other businesses are hiring,” said Martines.

The three-person HR team at FreeStar Financial hired nearly 50% of the company workforce in 2021 – 36 out of 84 employees. Martines attributes the number to growth and turnover.

“We try and keep a very positive attitude,” said Martines. “We take time to celebrate every success in hiring someone, so we don’t feel deflated or like we’re not moving forward.”

But she takes solace in knowing the financial industry is not struggling alone to find talent.

“We are in the same situation as a lot of other businesses, which gives some sort of reassurance. It’s happening to industries all over. The struggle to find talent, you can see it because there’s just not enough workforce,” she said.

Jack of all trades
In addition, HR professionals were constantly learning the pandemic laws that changed with regularity.

“Particularly during the pandemic, HR leaders have increasingly been tasked with monitoring the ever-changing regulatory landscape to help business partners understand the intricacies of new local, state and federal laws and how they apply to their business. HR leaders have had to remain agile with plans to adjust policies and inform employees and customers as regulations change,” said Alison Stevens, director of HR Services at Paychex in the company’s 2021 Pulse of HR Report.

Beth Kelly, founder and president, HR Collaborative, a management and consulting firm focusing on making work better for clients, agrees with Stevens. Kelly’s firm had a health care client that mandated vaccines. Some employees, who didn’t want to get vaccinated, got the vaccine because they wanted to keep their jobs. Other employees, who also didn’t want to get vaccinated, raised the alarm, didn’t get vaccinated and the company changed policy.

“You have some employees who didn’t want to get vaccinated but did anyway and you have people who waited. You can imagine the difficulty the HR person had with the employees who got vaccinated and getting both groups to work together successfully,” said Kelly. “Within 48 hours we were interpreting laws and having daily updates from attorneys. It’s kind of fun to do on an immediate basis, but it starts to wear on you when we’re going into our third year. We’re feeling the weight of maintaining a high level of discipline.”

Now, more than ever, HR professionals find themselves mediating employee disagreements.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is maintain alignment and work together. When you have one person who says. ‘I’m not wearing a mask,’ and another who says, ‘I’m not coming in unless we’re all wearing a mask.’ You have issues,” explained Kelly. “This whole issue of vaccinations and masks has polarized us so much it’s starting to affect us in our whole lives. The brunt of that lies squarely on the HR professional who is asked to handle the fallout.”

The biggest trend Kelly witnesses in HR is the number of professionals who don’t want full time jobs anymore.

“[HR professionals tell me] ‘It’s not worth it for me to have a full-time job anymore. Please help me find something where I can find more balance in my life,’” Kelly said. “We have seen the impact of this change in the way we work. HR folks who have felt it are now trying to take back control over their lives.”

But there may be a culture shift in HR on the horizon.

“I would like to think it would automatically open more seats to the C-suite table. I think it has emboldened some professionals to say, ‘I’m bringing my own seat, move over,’” said Williams. “HR people are pretty resilient. There’s something in us that has a buoyancy to stick with it and not give up.”

But, as with anything, appreciation may be the key to HR burnout.

“If you can’t fill your own bucket, there’s no way you can feel good,” said Williams. “Thank your HR professional today. Take a minute and thank them for a tough job no one wanted to do, but an HR person is the type to do it anyway.”