Compassion Fatigue in HR: The True Cost of Caring 

Compassion fatigue in HR professionals

 It’s the end of the world as we know it (and HR feel fine). Right?

A good friend of mine, we’ll call her M, is a Director of People at an international tech startup. She recently had a “A Day in the Life of HR” virtual fireside chat with her company.  

Her opening statement left many shocked. 

“There’s no such thing as a day in the life of HR. Each unique day brings with it equally harrowing, depressing, upsetting, and challenging aspects of seeing your best people in their worst possible moments.” 

“Being a ‘professional carer’ in HR is emotionally exhausting and has an impact on all areas of your life, both work-related and personal. There’s no pause button on catastrophe when it strikes.” 

The facts speak for themselves. A study by Lattice indicated that 60% of HR professionals surveyed gave “emotional exhaustion” as their biggest challenge. 

What is compassion fatigue? 

It’s a condition associated with those in caregiving professions such as nurses, doctors, veterinarians, teachers, social workers…and HR professionals. Compassion fatigue hits when constant exposure to others’ pain results in a diminished capacity to empathize with others. To put it bluntly, one just simply runs out of care to give. 

Compassion fatigue in HR is real. The Lattice study showed that 90% of HR professionals  reported an increase in their stress levels since 2020, and another report showed that 71% of HR team members said that 2020 was the most stressful year of their careers. 

HR as invisible first responders 

The unsung heroes of our organizations, HR professionals are the ‘first’ and ‘last’ emergency responders to everything and anything. M is a robust, pragmatic, and endlessly upbeat leader whose first year in the role of head of HR had the dubious honor of featuring the continuation of a global pandemic, war, recession, inflation, mass layoffs, the return of fascism in Western Europe, the end of women’s reproductive freedom in the U.S, ongoing racial tensions around the world, and a harvest of other worldwide crises (sadly) too abundant to list. 

 “That’s not even including HR employees’ own personal difficulties, like mental health struggles, relationship breakdowns, bereavement, and being laid off,” said M. 

 While contending with merely an iota of this would have most of us filing for early retirement, handling the effect of complex and sensitive world and personal issues for employees is the daily bread and butter of HR, more so that the tame usual suspects of hiring, firing, and payroll. The emphasis is on doing more, hiring more, retaining more. But who cares about the people who care about our people? 

Compassion fatigue in HR professionals

HR are employees too 

M added a very important but overlooked truth as she said, “It’s easy to forget that HR are people too, as well as employees. We experience the same life challenges and work turbulence as non-HR colleagues. We care, and it’s our job to care, but the emotional rebound effect is great and it’s very hard to shake off all of this in an average day.” 

Some tips for combatting compassion fatigue 

Here are some ways that HR professionals and organizations can help cushion the emotional toll and help manage compassion fatigue:

1. Recognize the symptoms

First, it’s vital to understand what you’re experiencing. Some symptoms of compassion fatigue include: 

  • Sleeping problems 
  • Intrusive thoughts 
  • Hyper-vigilance