How to Support the Team that Supports Every Employee - two HR people sitting on couch at work talking

How to Support the Team that Supports Every Employee

David Malmborg
May 19, 2022
October 9, 2022

HR people are some of the most awesome (and most stressed-out) human beings out there. In this article, we explain why the HR experience is like parenthood, why EAPs aren't the best mental health solution (for HR or for employees), and how companies can support the three different HR personalities.

You can watch the entire conversation on Supporting the Team That Supports Every Employee below. Follow us on Linkedin to stay in the loop on future live stream events.

Why HR is So Stressed Out

I had an employee a while back when I was a manager come to me with a mental health issue. I panicked. I had no idea how to have that conversation, so I told them to talk to HR.

This is not uncommon. A lot of times, managers will pass issues off to HR when they don't know how to deal with them, especially when it comes to mental health.

HR people tend to be people-loving people-pleasers. They want to jump in and solve all the problems. And everyone else in the company expects them to step up and solve many workplace problems, too.

This leads to a lot of pent-up pressure and stress from above and below, and within the HR department itself.

For these reasons, Elisa Garn, Founder and CEO of LevelNext (an online space for people to find mentors), with 18+ years of HR experience, likened human resources to motherhood.

"It's very much like parenting where you give everything you have to your community, to your kids, to your spouse... HR is the perfect analogy to motherhood in my opinion. You love your children, you have to provide for them and make sure they have what they need... but when you get to a point where there is nothing else to give because you are sacrificing your sleep, or you worry so much because you're staying up and don't know what's going on in their lives... at a certain point, a sponge can no longer pass off any absorption if there is nothing left inside of itself."

But it wasn't always this way. "HR came out of necessity because work environments were terrible... we needed somebody to protect life." Once HR started meeting those basic needs, HR expanded into helping people save for retirement, get health insurance, and now, support mental health and even help employees find purpose.

This is a tall order, and HR cannot be expected to solve every workplace problem. HR professionals need access to support and ample opportunities for work-life balance, just like every other employee.

40% of remote workers say that the biggest challenge for them is unplugging after work hours, and this number is even higher among company leaders, especially those in HR. Between in-person to remote to hybrid whiplash, constant demands and complaints from above and below, and the tremendous responsibility of keeping humans around so the company survives (not to mention supporting peoples' mental health), it's no wonder that 53% of HR leaders are burned out right now.

How can HR leaders possibly find time for themselves to recharge?

One thing's for sure: it's definitely not the EAP.

Why EAPs are Flawed

Most companies offer EAPs nowadays. It's so typical that many HR teams don't even promote them or tell their employees about it when they are onboarded.

Going back to my example from earlier, employees go to their managers with mental health struggles. The manager passes them off the HR. And then HR passes them off to the EAP.

It can take weeks, if not months to get help. Tons of paperwork, multiple pass-offs, and only a chance of getting the help that's needed.

"Mental health is one of those things that intrinsically most HR professionals have cared about for a very long time." - Elisa Garn, Founder and CEO of LevelNext

This system needs to change. Company leaders can work with HR to can steer the boat in the right direction. Company-wide mental health programs and initiatives can be the norm. The C-suite can include HR in business decision making instead of leaving them out. And, company leaders can help HR set boundaries.

Ways to Help HR Teams

Setting Work-Life Boundaries

How to Support the Team that Supports Every Employee - two HR people sitting on couch at work talking

Haeli Harris, LMFT and Lead Clinician at Nivati, has one key piece of advice for HR: “We have to leave work at work. We cannot take peoples' problems home. 'I know these are people and I care about these people, but I am also not responsible for these people, so I need to have boundaries in place.'”

HR people are the first to tell others to take time off, but they hardly take time off completely unplug themselves.

Company leaders can help by encouraging HR to take time off completely. In fact, executives need to set the example by taking time off themselves, or else the company won't follow suit.

Setting work-life boundaries can look like:

  • Having set working hours and sticking to them
  • Completely unplugging after work hours (no email, no notifications, no phone calls)
  • Taking breaks throughout the workday
  • Saying no to some meetings or projects

Understanding the HR Personalities and Involving HR in Business-Level Decision Making

Garn makes the point that HR people often start out with administrative roles. This is the enduring perspective that other company leaders tend to have. Thus, they are often left out of major decision-making. This alienates HR even more.

To make things even harder, HR tends to be "secret-keepers" and a listening ear for employees... yet they have no one to talk to themselves, further isolating them. HR loves doing what they do, but they often feel like the organization doesn't appreciate all their efforts.

Company leaders can start to better involve HR and give them the recognition they need by understanding how HR people operate. Garn outlines three "HR Personalities": the Traffic Cop, the City Planner, the Mayor.

The Traffic Cop

HR people that focus on keeping people safe and compliant and "direct traffic" are Traffic Cops. They are in the midst of all the action, and they put out fires all day long.

"They don't have time to think about: If I just put in a stoplight, that will free me up to be able to do other things," says Garn. They tend to be your traditional HR generalist or office manager.

The City Planner

City Planners are more "heads-up". They often have higher education and are focused on business outcomes and business infrastructure. They work super closely with leadership, and aren't as focused on culture or the individual employee experience.

The Mayor

Mayor types love building close relationships with the entire team. They want to know everything that is going on in the org, from top to bottom. They are great at building trust and understanding employees' pain points. They are superb at communicating with City Planners.

Company leaders can use this framework to 1) Better understand the HR people they have and how to help them and 2) which HR people the company needs to hire.

Helping HR Find Communities and Time for Self-Care

If your HR professionals are struggling, or you are an HR leader yourself, the HR Support Group and HR Executive Brain Trust that Nivati holds are both great communities for HR to get plugged into.

Encouraging your HR people to take time for themselves can help, especially throughout the workday.

Garn explains, “There’s not a silver bullet for self-care. It doesn’t always have to cost money, but usually costs time." Employers can help HR find that time by giving them permission to step away throughout the day.

For more insights on how employers can support HR teams, check out the video below.

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


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David Malmborg
David Malmborg