Employee Engagement

Their HR jobs were nightmares—here are the changes that got them back on track

On Reddit, some HR professionals are filled with doom and gloom about their professional futures. How can they feel happier at work?
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Photo Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: Getty Images/AnVr

· 5 min read

One night in January, an HR professional went on Reddit’s r/humanresources seeking advice.

“It’s Saturday night, you[’d] think I would have so many other things on my mind,” wrote user Maximum-Ambassador21, “but I can’t stop thinking about quitting my job with no backup plan.”

The user described feeling “constantly burnt out” as a result of being overloaded at work—something that surveys have found is all too familiar for most HR professionals, tasked with everything from hiring and firing to compliance and then some.

Contributing to the commenter’s burnout is that, in their words, “The field requires you to be doing everything at once.” The role has evolved rapidly in the past three years, according to a study by UK-based Sage Consultancy, and some HR professionals are struggling to execute everything that now falls under their domain. Some 95% of HR professionals surveyed by Sage in December 2022 agreed that they had too much work, in part because they’re now dealing with strategic functions in addition to the administrative tasks long associated with the job. As a result, 62% said they were considering leaving HR altogether.

This sentiment is echoed on Reddit. Some threads have taken a darker turn in recent weeks, with some users questioning whether they’re cut out for HR and if the profession is soul-sucking. Two current HR pros who expressed empathy on Reddit threads on the topic shared their stories of grappling with the “Should I stay or should I go?” question with HR Brew, under the condition that their identities not be shared. They found that setting boundaries and staying aligned with their purpose helped them ultimately stay in the profession.

Better balance. Andre, who has worked as an HR manager in retail for seven years and asked to be identified only by his first name, told HR Brew that for the first few years of his HR career, which began in 2016, working in the industry took a toll on his sleep, mental health, and marriage.

Andre said the closest he came to quitting was when he was asked to adjudicate a conflict between two coworkers. He recalled watching a shouting match, thinking, “This isn’t what I’ve been trained on…This isn’t something I ever thought I’d have to deal with.” He didn’t think mediating such a disagreement and handling miscellaneous tasks like IT support, scheduling, and late-night problem-solving when the front door broke belonged on his already full plate.

A new manager, he said, suggested that he set boundaries to handle only what matched his job description and delegate the rest to the correct teams. He said it was hard advice to follow, because he felt that as the HR “people person,” he was supposed to support all problems, but he learned to do it, and recommends other burnt-out HR professionals do the same.

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“The best steps they can take is establishing their boundaries of what truly they need to handle. What truly [is and] isn’t their responsibility,” he said.

Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, would second this advice. Gallup has studied workplace happiness for decades and has consistently found that a main driver of happiness at work is having clarity of expectations. If HR pros like Andre are able to separate what is and is not their job, they can better focus their attention, ideally, he said, on what they’re best at.

Climate change. Another HR professional, the director of people operations at a fintech startup, acknowledged that HR can involve a lot of work. And in this economy, those in the field might experience stress while making tough personnel calls during layoffs. He felt like one former employer placed a greater focus on profits over people, possibly even cutting employee programs and benefits to pad the bottom line. As someone who said he got into HR because he likes helping people succeed at their jobs, this made it hard for him to feel fulfilled at work.

He left to work at his current company, where he’s able to create people programs and see employees succeed. What has made all the difference, he explained, is the company culture.

“In the three [or] four companies that I’ve worked at, nothing has been anything close to the environment that I’m in now,” he told HR Brew. “It’s a totally different atmosphere. Even during difficult times, it’s easier to deal with.”

This doesn’t surprise Clifton. “[People] need to have a mission and purpose—they need to be able to do what they do best,” he said.

The anonymous HR professional recommended that those struggling to be happy in HR reflect on why they got into the field in the first place. If they find their work environment is getting in the way, perhaps it’s time for a change.

“Where do you find the joy in your work?” he asked. “If you don’t have the opportunity to do that anymore, you should think about leaving and finding work that allows you to fulfill that part of yourself.”—SV

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.