Many of us are drawn to leadership and work within HR or people teams because we want to help people. But if we’re not careful, we absorb people’s problems like a sponge—which can quickly lead to feeling overwhelmed or burned out. I’ve certainly had my share of times when I couldn’t take it anymore. Had I not been laid off in May 2020, I likely would have quit later that year. The pressure of the role, and the emotional labor it requires, left little time for tending to my own needs, and after a decade of supporting other people, I didn’t think I had much more to give.
The last few years have been incredibly challenging for leaders. Navigating the world of work during the pandemic has required its own massive scope of additional work for HR and people teams—the “people professionals” responsible for the health and safety of employees, not to mention the logistics of transitioning to hybrid or remote work environments. But the additional impact of social unrest, geopolitical conflict, the cost-of-living crisis, the recession, layoffs, and more have pushed people to the edge.
People professionals have to lead their organizations through one crisis after another, continually adding new skills and responsibilities to their job descriptions, often without increases in pay, headcount, or even training. So it’s expected that they, too, are anxious, exhausted, and stressed about things beyond their control.
So it’s more important than ever that leaders keep an eye on their team’s well-being. Equally important—and harder to do—is making sure you’re not sacrificing your own mental health while looking out for everyone else. Finding that balance requires a thoughtful and intentional approach to integrating life and work and showing up as leaders.
Setting and sharing your availability
Having clear separation between work and life is easier when working in a physical office since leaving the office signals being done for the day. At my last office-based job, I set a firm boundary on my time and availability by leaving at 4pm to get home in time to make dinner before my daughter came home from school. And I tried to use that commute time to disconnect my brain from work so I wasn’t still deep in work brain mode when I got home.
Working remotely means I no longer have that physical separation between work and life. If your workplace is both remote-first and globally distributed, like mine is at Oyster, it can start to feel like the workday never ends. This can create anxiety and stress because you might feel like you have to be online at all hours of the day to avoid missing something. And there is no external influence of a commute physically reminding you to wind down. That means it’s even more important to be intentional about switching off at the end of the workday since you may no longer have a clear separation between work and your personal/family time. I know what time my kids get home from school, and I try to build in a wind-down buffer at the end of my day, so I’m not working until they come through the door.
One way to maintain boundaries in a virtual workplace is to ensure your team knows when you’re available and when you aren’t. For instance, even though I follow a non-linear workday, there are times when I’m unavailable—and I clearly indicate those times on my calendar. Marking 4:30-6pm as “child care duties & family time” means I can’t be pulled into meetings then (unless it’s an emergency).
In a remote-first workplace, indicating your working hours in your calendar and Slack profile is a good idea. If your company has individual ‘About Me’ pages, you can also use that space to clarify your preferences around how and when people can contact you, what falls within your remit and what doesn’t, and so on.
Take a time out when it’s needed
Earlier in my career, I always wanted to act quickly and get things done, to respond to people’s needs with an urgency that matched their own. But as I’ve grown into leadership, I’ve learned that the quickest response isn’t necessarily the wisest. It’s much more helpful to take the time to process and identify what I’m feeling, find a safe outlet if necessary, and then respond holistically rather than from that emotional place.
Being a people professional or leader means dealing with sensitive, complex, and challenging situations. It’s often helpful to take a step back and give yourself time to process and reflect. That might mean stepping away from your computer and taking a break if you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
In difficult situations, stepping back might mean finding safe outlets for whatever emotions you might be feeling, whether talking to a friend or colleague, your manager, or your therapist. By safely discharging those emotional reactions, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to respond appropriately to the situation at hand—from a place of empathy rather than reactivity.
Emotional Teflon to the rescue
The work of HR and people teams has a direct impact on the employee experience. That’s a good thing because you get to design and deliver a stellar, unique experience for the people who come to work at your company. But sometimes, you’ll also receive negative feedback if people are unhappy with internal policies, processes, or programs—which can be challenging.
Having done this for 15 years, I’ve developed a thick skin. I think of it as “emotional Teflon” that lets things roll off without sticking. You want to be responsive to people’s needs but must also be careful not to take it all on yourself. You have to approach things with empathy and humanity, but you can’t internalize every problem or complaint.
You also have to accept that you’ll never satisfy everyone. There will always be people who disagree with your decisions or don’t believe they were supported correctly. Sometimes the company might have to make difficult decisions, and people may be rightfully upset. Know that you’re doing your best, and try not to take it personally. If your Teflon isn’t working, talking it through with a peer or professional can help you let go of the things you’re holding onto.
Keep your promises (to yourself and others)
Telling your team to prioritize their well-being will only go so far. Ideally, you should model what that looks like so your team feels enabled and empowered by your example. This can feel hard, or even impossible, but don’t live out that old Spanish proverb “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.” Put on that oxygen mask, or your cobbler’s shoes, to ensure the pace is sustainable.
Be open about what you do to prioritize your well-being—and that of your family. If you’ll be offline due to childcare duties, a doctor or therapist appointment, or even a yoga class or rest break, share openly on your calendar, your Slack status, or your LinkedIn posts. More importantly, make sure you follow through on what you say. For instance, if you tell your team you’re logging off for the weekend or that you’re going on PTO and won’t be available—make sure you do that—no sneaky work in the margins just to check-in. Committing to taking time away and taking care of yourself lets your team know it’s safe for them to do the same.
I can’t claim that I’ve always managed to balance my work and mental health or that I’ve always set a good example. I am a work in progress and don’t always keep my promises to myself or others. But you don’t have to be perfect to share; we can encourage and support each other. By sharing my outlook, goals, and struggles, I hope to do my part to normalize the pursuit of growth and help others in their journeys.
Kim Rohrer is principal people partner at Oyster, a global HR platform.