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Combating Compassion Fatigue in HR

Brandon Laws
HR Staff Consultation
It’s not just you. Since the pandemic, many HR professionals have found themselves feeling exhausted, hopeless, like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a name for this feeling: Compassion fatigue. Many HR professionals are empathetic and caring by nature. They’re uniquely positioned in their roles to encounter people at their low points. And at a time when work has never been tougher, it can be hard to avoid the day-in and day-out of this heavy emotional work. 

“You’re worried about the employees, you’re worried about the employees’ families. It all just weighs on you and it’s really, really tiring.”  -Lacey Partipilo

Here’s the thing. Compassion is key to HR. Without it, you can’t create the kind of work environment where people feel seen, feel valued, feel heard. When compassion is a key tenant of the workplace—and people are treated like people—employees have higher satisfaction rates, perform better, and stay longer. But the toll of fostering this environment falls on the people who are working hardest to ensure it feels this way. From decreased effectiveness and strained relationships to burnout and increased turnover, the impacts of compassion fatigue extend far beyond the individual. 

So what’s causing compassion fatigue? There are always going to be outside triggers, whether it’s an economic downturn or a global pandemic. But the nature of the HR profession, where compassion and empathy are key tools, increase the challenges. High-stress work environments or emotionally demanding events (like a round of layoffs) take their toll. The non-stop pace prevents people from taking the time they need to recharge. And working without adequate training or resources can also leave people feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. As my colleague Toni Reynolds shares, “Since the pandemic, HR professionals have taken on so much more. There’s been pressure to be experts in things we hadn’t even heard of. We’ve been building the plane as we fly it.” 

How can you tell when you’re experiencing compassion fatigue? Sometimes it sneaks up on you. As Lacey Partipilo explains, “I’m a caring person and I’ve invested in the clients and people I work with. When I start to feel like I don’t care, like the vessel is depleted…that’s when I know I need to do something about it.” It can also come across in how you talk and interact with others. Toni finds herself getting down about things, speaking more negatively about her own contributions. “My director can tell when it’s been a tough week. We keep an eye out for each other.” 

Which leads us to what you can do about compassion fatigue. Lacey and Toni are both big proponents of establishing boundaries and prioritizing work-life balance. Stay on top of your calendar, schedule time for yourself, support colleagues when they need to do the same. Find your outlets—whether it’s exercise, a group text where you share funny memes or a work-friend you can talk to when things get overwhelming. Build up a network of people you can be open with about the challenges of your role. There are a lot of resources out there—and plenty of people who know what you’re going through. 

“The thing I love about being in a room full of HR people is that you can talk it out, laugh a little, shed the emotional burden. You have to be able to talk about these things.”  - Toni Reynolds 

And of course, this can’t just fall on the individual. Organizations have a responsibility to create a workplace where the most compassionate among us aren’t left carrying the burden. Normalize regular check-ins with employees and managers to understand how people are feeling and what resources would help. Invest in employee assistance programs and mental health resources. We need to normalize an environment where people can take the time they need to recharge and reset when things are tough. 

In today’s always-on workplace environment, ignoring compassion fatigue isn’t going to be an option. So many HR professionals are at their breaking point—empathetic, energetic, and truly talented people who don’t have enough left in the tank. This isn’t something we can ask our HR professionals to do for us. Ultimately, we can all work together—as both individuals and leaders—to create a supportive and compassionate environment where everyone can thrive.
Brandon Laws Brandon Laws is the Senior Director of Marketing and Product at Xenium HR. He is the host of Transform Your Workplace, a podcast he started in 2012 which has grown to over 400 episodes and 950,000 downloads. Ranked the number one HR podcast, with a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts, it provides inspiration and practical tools for HR professionals and people leaders. Brandon continues to drive the conversation forward through webinars, speaking appearances, and social media. He lives Oregon, with his wife, Angela, their children Parker and Paisley, two cats, and a dog.