How HR leaders can sustain their passion for the function

HR leaders must nurture a sense of curiosity and compassion, in order to avoid the growing risk of professional burnout.
By: | July 27, 2018 • 3 min read

Martha Finney is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling authoron HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. She says HR leaders must nurture a sense of curiosity and compassion to avoid professional burnout.


It’s never a good idea to draw generalisations. But in this case, I’ll make an exception. Of all the functions in the corporate world, the HR profession is the most susceptible to for emotional erosion. Therefore, the potential for burnout is also among the highest.

Young talent enters the HR profession through a variety of channels, but the prospect of working to serve the people side of the business is almost always a substantial part of the initial attraction. I always cringe when I hear a young voice say, “I’m in HR because I like working with people.”

It’s not the naivete that puts me on edge. It’s that I know what’s coming next: Someone in the room is bound to offer the sardonic counter perspective: “Yeah, just wait a couple of weeks; you’ll change your tune.”

Hear that? That’s the sound of the first breaking of the young HR heart.

As the years pass, that bundle of hassle that is the HR career heaps experience upon experience to further squelch that initial idealistic impulse. Imagine cutting the strings of a piano, one by one. Every day, every week, there is some new “fresh hell” (as poet Dorothy Parker put it) that cuts the HR professional away from the hopeful attachment to whatever promised fulfilment in the early days.

Human drama, human frailties, human pettiness, human paperwork, human politics, human complications, human disappointments… eventually that same young idealist will be the one in the room saying to a newbie, “Yeah, just wait ….”

And yet there are those who stick with the profession over decades. Their early passion for HR prevails. How do they do it, when they’re in the middle of it, with years behind them and many years to go? Here are three approaches.

Looking back on my career, I see that I was continually energised by trying to help others. You have to be always looking outward to see who needs help and how you can be the one to give it to them.

When I was trying to figure out what my future would be, I applied to both rabbinical seminary and law school, and was accepted to both. However, the head of the seminary talked me out of it. Since I wasn’t especially religious, there were so many other ways I could help people, he said. So I went into business with a degree in industrial and labour relations from Cornell.

The technical aspects of HR didn’t light my fire. I still had to do those things, but I kept looking for ways to help others. While I was at Cornell, I helped develop the initial employee-assistance program. And, later, I implemented it in the gaming industry, when no one was talking about whether HR in the US should get involved in employees’ private substance-abuse issues.

In another instance, a local politician introduced me to an ex-felon, who told me, “I’m looking for a second chance.” For someone like me, who is predisposed to help others, a request like that was hard to ignore.  Someone like this guy isn’t going to screw up his second chance.

And so, I retained a parole officer, a local minister, and a member of the local police department to work with me and give him guidance. He turned out to be the first of 400 ex-offenders whom I’ve hired over the years. I’m still involved in this work of helping ex-offenders cross the bridge to employment.

Since I discovered the endless ways of helping others help themselves, my life has spiralled in every direction beyond what I learned at school about what it would mean to be a personnel specialist. Seeing my role as someone who improves the lives and circumstances of people around them has kept me going for over 35 years.

Reconnect with what engaged you in HR in the first place; then take a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in your organisation and your career over time. That will help you manage your energy, as you need to rekindle your passion for your career.

Remember what makes you happy and brings you joy in your profession. Keep that an essential part of the work you do.

Carve out time in your days and weeks to reconnect with the people who know you best. I have what I call my personal board of advisors; these are my friends I’ve known since growing up in Australia. They remind me of who I really am. I call them often to create time and space away from whatever negativity I might be experiencing.

Retain your perspective. Most of us in HR are not going to save any lives or kill anyone on an average day. Keep in mind the gravity of any given situation—or lack thereof. Focus on the long-term good you are working toward, and the short-term issues won’t seem so painful.

Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself. There is a lot of power in the human spirit and human mind. We can choose the way we interpret our life’s events and our narratives. Your attitude is the biggest component in the way you experience your career, and it will ultimately decide your destiny.

Give yourself time horizons. Over my career, making a change every three years or so has kept my energy fresh. If something is critically wrong for me in some way, I tell myself that if I still feel that way in 12 months, I’ll start thinking about making a change then. This approach allows me to have patience. More often than not, that target date comes and goes, and by then I’ve forgotten all about the situation that was making me so unhappy a year before.

Finally, remember that a break from HR doesn’t have to be permanent. You can actually leave the profession for a while and return to it when the time is right. The HR career really is a “choose your own adventure” proposition.