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HR is not your therapist – but it needs one

This week I woke up tired. Nothing unusual for me, I have a toddler who until recently had obstructive sleep apnoea, so sleep has been a non-event for some time. This Monday, however, it felt different.  

I’d spent the weekend in a reflective mood, thinking about my 20-year career in HR and the emotional impact of the trauma I’d attempted to support my colleagues through.

So, I thought I’d write something on LinkedIn and hoped some of my network would validate my feelings of exhaustion.

I did not expect what happened next: 24 hours later the post had been viewed 15,000 times, with over 400 people reacting, 30-plus comments and multiple reposts; my tired musings had catapulted around the global people profession.

Guess what? It turns out the entire people/HR field is tired. Not only that, but it felt like people at every level – including global corporate CPOs – were admitting they felt totally unsupported while essentially operating as unqualified therapists for thousands of employees across the world. 

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Having taken the time to reflect on it further, I think this is genuinely terrifying.

The people team are literally at the front line of the human experience, and not just when it comes to traditional work issues.

Through my own career I’ve attempted to support colleagues through suicide, rape, cancer, death, baby loss, divorce, debilitating physical illness and complex mental health issues, not to mention the global challenges of Covid, an economic meltdown and a war.

Am I qualified to be offering one-to-one therapy in these life changing situations? Absolutely not. Yet somehow my role as a generalist HR practitioner (typically seen as an expert in culture and human potential at work) puts me in a position to try.

In the UK, a BACP counsellor would typically study full-time for at least two years then conduct at least 100 hours of supervised placements before they are considered qualified to support people dealing with this level of trauma.

On top of that, throughout their career, they would be required to attend regular therapy themselves and clinical supervision to ensure they are not internalising others' trauma or giving unethical guidance.

Me? I left school at 16 with my GCSEs and worked my way up the HR career ladder, becoming qualified by experience alone. I’ve privately sought therapy on and off, mostly to deal with personal trauma.

I don’t have a relevant qualification to my name (clinical or otherwise). And yet, here I stand, the first line of support for the most challenging of human experiences, with absolutely no one checking my work or my own mental health.

Is anyone else is starting to feel quite uncomfortable here?

So, I think I’m having what they call in therapy a breakthrough. Yes, no wonder we are tired. It turns out the profession I’ve been a part of for almost 20 years has failed us. 

The 27-year-old Milly trying to process being the last person to speak to an employee before he took his own life; the 29-year-old Milly sobbing in her CHRO’s office because she didn’t know how she could possibly support the young girl who had just been raped, and the nearly 40-year-old Milly who had to literally carve an uncharted path for her organisation while trying to navigate an unprecedented global pandemic herself.

Traumas, incidents, and severe critical episodes in life now seem to come with ‘the job'. We are exposed to those in trauma states more frequently, without the help we need.

It's time to change the way we work as people professionals and provide stronger qualified support for our ‘people’ people.

I strongly feel that it’s time we gave the people function regular access to qualified, professional support and interventions via a regulated practitioner like a clinical psychologist. 

We need to build a framework that protects both the people person and the teams we are supporting, as we navigate the complexities of being humans at work.


Milly Richardson is VP people at Vitesse