Baking Self-Care Into the Culture of HR

Winter 2020-21
Sarah Lobb

The employees we support often turn to us, the HR professionals, for help contending with their daily work and worries. Helping them handle and resolve stress is generally accepted as part of our job descriptions, and it’s an expectation that we push ourselves to meet. But the pandemic has exponentially increased that aspect of our jobs, and as more of our time is spent pouring out support to employees and students, setting aside time to refill our own emotional and physical reserves is a must.

In interviews conducted before and after COVID-19 came on the scene, 23 higher ed HR professionals and CUPA-HR members talked about their stressors and how they cope personally and professionally. Their responses offer insights into how HR can help make well-being a part of the culture at our institutions, rather than something we address in times of crisis.

Assessing the Challenges for HR

Before the pandemic, the stressors of frequently changing policies, heavy workloads, the responsibility of communicating big changes, and the constraints of working with limited resources required stamina and creativity to overcome. The stressors we are dealing with now? Processes and policies changing even more rapidly than before; devising and orchestrating return-to-work, permanently remote work, and campus occupancy plans with even fewer resources; contending with the constraints of hiring freezes or reductions in force; planning for uncertainty (which is where humor comes in, if you have the energy to laugh); maintaining strong relationships across professional teams and within our personal lives in a virtual format, and keeping our employees and families healthy and safe from both COVID-19 and burnout.

All of these stressors increase the pressure to always be “on” and ready to navigate the unexpected in an environment where it’s difficult to disconnect from our work.

This is all very heavy. Based on the interviews with HR pros, here’s how we’re coping:

  • Adding structure to our days and parameters around working hours with consistent breaks, thus strengthening the boundaries between work and personal life
  • Nurturing our minds and bodies through consistent exercise, sometimes as simple as a walk outside
  • Connecting with trusted colleagues to converse about something other than work
  • Spending time with family
  • Meditating, listening to music, cooking

While these coping mechanisms help alleviate stress in the short term and get us through our day-to-day, HR needs a long-term plan in place — one that will help us feel better prepared to face well-being issues when the next crisis comes along.


Learning From Other Helping Professions

HR pros are in a unique position on campus because we are often called upon to communicate with and help employees when they are at their most vulnerable and in distress. And because confidentiality is a critical part of our role, we do not have the same opportunities as others to process what we see and hear by talking about it. Published research surrounding another helping service — social work — can give us clarity and perhaps provide HR with ways to support our own mental health.

In her paper Mental Health Social Workers: The State of Their Well-Being and Support (2016), Laura Conway draws upon her own research and that of others to find that the high stress among social workers stems from “lack of resources, pressure to work long hours, covering for open positions, high volume of work and not feeling appreciated by employers nor by general society.” Further, Conway found that the “organization’s mindset towards self-care is extremely influential in a social worker’s maintenance of well-being.” Conway’s research prompts the question, “How is mental well-being regarded at my institution?” Is it baked into the culture or treated as an afterthought?

In Stress and Burnout in the Helping Professions, author Nancy Ratliff studied others’ research to understand the origins of the stress in these fields and how such stress might be alleviated. Researcher Alfred Kadushin found that the performance of services itself is the reward, which leads to the question of whether we are routinely overlooking the success and ingenuity behind our accomplishments, and saying nothing when we receive no acknowledgement or thanks. Researcher Ayala Pines quite plainly stated that the relationship between the supporting professionals and the employees they support doesn’t go both ways. That’s a no-brainer in human resources.

Ratliff’s article offers research-based suggestions for alleviating extreme stress, including:

  • exploring personal therapy
  • making free time
  • establishing a well-adjusted circle of friends (perhaps through your local CUPA-HR chapter)
  • separating work and home life (easier said than done these days)
  • exercising and being active
  • listening to music
  • meditating

Other researchers recommend institutional or organizational changes to reduce stress:

  • reducing workload overall
  • offering more breaks
  • balancing the amount of demanding work and less draining tasks
  • recognizing each worker’s needs and providing the right opportunities for growth, development and training
  • setting well-defined objectives that can be measured and periodically reviewed to show the positive impact of one’s work

One other option is for the organization to address professional and personal stress head-on and support the formation of coping mechanisms tailored to individuals or teams, such as HR. However, to sustain that support through good times and bad may require a cultural shift for our institutions.

Systemizing a Culture of Care for HR

A culture shift is not something that happens overnight, as HR is well aware. So how do we move self-care and effective coping methods from being something else to get on the list to being HR values that are as important as excellent customer service and strategic thinking? Here are some ways to get started:

  • Talk about the stressors from day one on the job. When you onboard a new HR professional to your team (regardless of where they are in their HR career), discuss what issues and stressors often come up, how team members deal with them, and what the work environment offers to relieve stressors.
  • Create an HR competency for knowing how to take care of one other. Although the nature of our work prohibits us from talking to anyone who doesn’t “need to know” or who isn’t legally allowed to know, as HR professionals, we can take care of each other. How can coworker care become an expectation in our job descriptions? Alter the description of a team player to someone who engages in self-care that allows that person to be a more productive and positive member of the team. Higher ed pros must fill each other up so we can continue to pour out support and encouragement to employees.
  • Offer an employee assistance program (EAP) training a few times a year that is specific to dealing with stress in HR. This can be training created by HR professionals for HR professionals and attended only by HR professionals.

It’s key to remember that the work we do holds incredible gravity — it can make a significant difference in people’s lives, for better or worse. By recognizing that we have a heavy load to bear, we better respect ourselves for the work we do. This is the first — and maybe most important — step in self-care. As we put 2020 behind us, let’s make mental well-being for HR a priority so we can continue to support those who need us in the year ahead.

Leading by Example —  Rollins College’s Well-Being Work

Rollins College is one institution that exemplifies what it means to bake well-being into its institutional culture. In an episode of CUPA-HR’s Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19 podcast series, Jennifer Addleman, director of benefits and well-being, shared several programs and tools the college has created to support the well-being of everyone on campus.

Addleman provided a look into virtual events and activities that faculty and staff are encouraged to attend, such as webinars and lunch-and-learns on adapting to change, coping with loss, parenting and caregiving tips, how to create healthy habits, and much more. As part of the institution’s employee assistance program, telecounseling is available for faculty and staff,
as well as confidential online screenings and tools to gauge emotional well-being. Additionally, the faculty and staff well-being committee has awarded several well-being grants to departments on campus to access a meditation app that can be used during meetings. Addleman reports that employees who use the app note that they are more present and focused throughout the day and that their team dynamic is more positive when they meditate together.

On the student side, the college is building new student housing that will have a yoga and meditation room. Mindfulness, meditation and tai chi classes are offered at no cost, allowing students to participate with faculty and staff to engage in mindfulness together.

Addleman suggests the best way for HR pros to begin making well-being a priority for themselves is by starting small: make time for yourself, remember that mindfulness takes practice, and try breathing and sensory exercises mentioned in her article, Mindfulness Matters, in the Winter 2019-20 issue of Higher Ed HR Magazine

About the author: Sarah Lobb is assistant director, HR, division of student life at the University of Iowa, and a 2019-20 CUPA-HR Wildfire Program participant. CUPA-HR’s Wildfire Program is sponsored in part by HigherEdJobs.

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