Building HR resilience during the coronavirus

Author: Graham Brown

HR has been on the frontline of organisational response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, meeting every challenge thrown its way. But there is concern among the HR community that the pressure being placed on them is putting their own health and wellbeing at risk. Graham Brown looks at how HR professionals can build their resilience levels during the current crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed workplaces up and down the country. In March 2020, employers were forced to introduce widespread homeworking almost overnight, and since then the changes have continued to come thick and fast - including the launch and subsequent extension of the Government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the implementation of socially distanced workplaces and coronavirus risk assessments. HR has been at the heart of employers' responses, from advising line managers on remote working guidelines and managing complex furlough arrangements to administering temporary pay cuts and managing redundancies - all while having to support the health and wellbeing of employees during uncertain and distressing times.

XpertHR's latest pulse survey found the profession coping admirably with the challenges it has faced so far. One respondent says that "the passion and enthusiasm for supporting colleagues throughout has been really evident across the profession, even where elements of it have suffered through the issues of lockdown and financial insecurity. I'm very proud to be in HR at the moment".

However, there is concern among the HR community that the unrelenting workload, which shows no sign of abating in the near future, could be jeopardising the physical and mental wellbeing of HR professionals. Rachel Suff of the CIPD believes that HR professionals need to look after themselves. "There's a risk that people professionals are so committed to supporting the organisation's needs, as well as those of employees and managers, that their own wellbeing can be overlooked," she says. "The considerable demands placed on them, combined with high uncertainty over the business situation, can produce a perfect storm for stress. People professionals therefore need to be mindful of the risks to their own wellbeing at this challenging time."

Building HR resilience

The concept of "resilience" has been much-discussed in recent months. Employers have had to show "organisational resilience", defined by the BSI as "the ability to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper". Employees have had to show "individual resilience" to cope with sudden and unexpected changes to their ways of working and their overall lifestyles.

The HR function has also had to show resilience. Claire Baker - founder of HR for HR, a club aimed at promoting wellbeing among the HR community - says: "HR needs to put its own oxygen masks on first. We need to prioritise our own wellbeing, so that we are in the best position to support, help and guide our employees, managers and clients. We often forget about our own needs and forget that we are employees, too. HR needs to lead by example."

Wellbeing resources for HR

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on people's general health and wellbeing. Research from mental health charity Mind shows that nearly two-thirds of adults reported their mental health got worse during lockdown and many people with no previous experience of mental health problems have seen their mental health and wellbeing decline over the past eight months. There is a growing imbalance between the psychological, social and physical challenges that HR is facing and the resources that are available to assist HR professionals, according to Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University Business School. Dale says: "If we think about wellbeing as the balance point between our resources and challenges, then it is no surprise to find that all employees, HR included, are finding it difficult to reach that balance point right now."

"The big risk for me is burnout," Dale continues. "I don't just mean people being exhausted - I'm referring specifically to burnout as a medical condition, which arises from being under prolonged work-related stress. This is a risk for many, HR included. Stressors have continued since the start of the pandemic and are increasing again as we see more restrictions being implemented and hear repeated bad news about rising cases."

HR professionals need to have a clear plan of action around looking after their own wellbeing, Dale believes. This includes identifying the resources that will help them cope with current challenges. "Wellbeing is unique, individual and contextual," she says. "There is no one way to do wellbeing, or one way to be well through this crisis. The most important thing anyone can do is be aware of what, for them, supports or detracts from their sense of wellbeing. They need to do more of the former and reduce the latter wherever possible. Practising self-care and having some self-compassion - cutting yourself some slack - is critical to getting through this well."

She suggests several actions that could help HR professionals to build their resilience and improve their wellbeing at this time, including:

  • taking regular exercise;
  • eating a balanced diet and keeping hydrated;
  • maintaining social connections with others;
  • putting in place effective boundaries between work and home life;
  • taking regular breaks during the day and taking annual leave when needed; and
  • being aware of the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and seeking help if required.

Rachel Suff echoes these suggestions: "People professionals need to take time to rest and recharge after busy periods. They should take regular breaks, not work when unwell, and strive to achieve a good work-life balance."

The value of HR support networks

HR professionals can also benefit from having access to a support network. While managers and employees have been able to turn to HR for advice and guidance during the pandemic, HR professionals have often had little support for themselves.

Helen Astill of HR consultancy Cherington HR believes this need for support is particularly acute at small and medium-sized businesses. "Being the sole HR practitioner in a small business, or working as an independent HR consultant, has been a nightmare for many during 2020," she says. "They are normally relied on as an organisation's 'people problem-solver' - whether that is to sort out an individual employee issue or to sort out practical problems for the business. Being the sole confidante for both employee and employer calls for tact, diplomacy and discretion. Having no-one else to share these confidential pressures with can be harmful to individuals' mental health in the long term. Many other professions have 'supervision' arrangements to ensure that employees are able to share concerns and be supported. This can involve an accountable, two-way process, which supports, motivates and enables the development of good practice. This is commonplace in health and social care settings. But it seems to be missing as an expectation within the HR profession."

Astill herself has turned to an informal online HR network during the pandemic, which she has found a valuable source of practical and emotional support. "For many of us, this online network has been the only way we have been able to share our worries," she says. "We have given each other practical help on how to deal with furlough and redundancy processes, by sharing templates for example, as well as providing one another with emotional support and encouragement. Without this network, I believe that many of us would have become casualties ourselves. We have been severely tested. We will survive, but it is a wake-up call that shows how reliant businesses are on a few key people. To minimise the risk to business continuity, employers need to put the resilience of HR practitioners much higher on their agenda."

A training-based approach to building resilience

Another approach to help build resilience is to train people to make better wellbeing choices - whether that is choosing to eat more healthily or take more exercise, or to reach out and connect with colleagues and friends for support when needed.

Sarah-Jane Georges is an account director at Steps, a behaviour change company that runs mental health and wellbeing programmes and uses training to help build resilience. They use live and digital drama-based scenarios to challenge thinking and create debate about how people are behaving and how their behaviour may be impacting the performance and wellbeing of themselves and those around them. "On our programmes we use drama to help people see their behaviour through the eyes of others and to explore the behavioural cues that indicate all might not be OK with an individual," says Georges. "We then work with the participants to explore how people might behave differently and the impact these alternative approaches might have.

In our experience, behaviour change around wellbeing is less a knowledge gap and more of a 'doing' gap. For example, we all know how many steps we're supposed to walk each day or how much fruit and veg we're supposed to eat. And we know that emotions sometimes make us act in ways that are bad for our health. But that does not always stop us from doing it. By using drama and getting people to watch interactions and conversations happening right in front of them, we can get them to see that everyone makes choices in their behaviour and that it's within their control to make different - and healthier - choices."

Further challenges lie ahead

The end of the UK's second national lockdown on 2 December 2020 and news that a coronavirus vaccine is likely to be available soon are causes for optimism. But the reality remains that many businesses are still struggling to survive and that HR still has a great deal of work to do - not least handling the conclusion of the CJRS, which is now due at the end of March 2021. "HR has been at the centre of helping to lead their organisation's response to COVID-19," says Rachel Suff. "They now need to help shore up their organisation's resilience during the second wave. Many HR professionals are also now responsible for implementing cost reduction and/or redundancy programmes, and bearing the weight of responsibility for people's wellbeing during a climate of recession and high unemployment."

It is clear that now, more than ever, HR needs to build its resilience to be ready for the significant challenges that still lie ahead.