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Dave Ulrich on how HR professionals should look after their own health and wellbeing

Dave Ulrich, HR magazine's Most Influential 2009 thinker, offers advice to HR professionals on avoiding burnout from the increased pressures they are experiencing during the recession

The recent global economic recession has placed HR professionals on the front line. They are the architects of downsizing and other recession policies; they become the face of the organisation to announce and implement these policies; they are the voice of the company to notify individuals about their job loss; they become the grim reaper when reducing compensation for the remaining workers; and spokesperson and change agent when implementing company changes. In addition to the stress of playing visible roles to streamline their companies, they face invisible stress about their own roles and job security.

In my visits to HR professionals, I find they are enthused by the opportunities they face in helping their companies survive these tough times, but they are also worn down by the increased demands these opportunities create. They carry out the administrative work of HR (on payroll and benefits, etc.), manage strategic challenges of company positioning and survival, safeguard their organisation's culture even as they make dramatic strategic and operational changes, and attend to the human issues related to change. HR professionals are the caregivers in their organisations and many are being stretched and at risk of burnout.   

So, how do the care givers take care of themselves? Let me suggest five areas where HR professionals might care for themselves, drawn on work from psychology, change and leadership development.

When facing depression, psychologists recommend taking care of your body, including nutrition, exercise and sleep. In demanding times, it is tempting to avoid taking time to care for your body. Long work hours, personal financial loss and stressful work duties often make it difficult to find the time to do so. Those of us who go through periods of extensive travel know that when we are in the travel mode, we often don't pay attention to healthy food, exercise or sleep. Then, after a few days, we are sluggish and less productive than we should be.  

HR professionals should monitor their physical state. Most of us know what our body requires relative to healthy eating, exercise and sleep. The challenge is turning what we know into what we do. Being disciplined around healthy lifestyles means putting regular exercise on the calendar, taking time to prepare and eat healthy food and never going more than two nights without adequate sleep. Having an annual physical, monitoring weight, pulse and blood pressure and getting adequate sleep are the physical basics.

In addition, taking care of your physical self requires taking care of your work environment.  Look at your office to make sure it is conducive to your work style, check your personal finances to make sure you are managing your risk and reward, and your calendar to see how you are spending your time.

Many of us have taken the stress test where you are given points for stress-inducing life events. Above a certain point level the researchers suggest we are likely to get sick. In the current economic times, many of us have far surpassed this stress level, are emotionally drained and should really be admitted to hospital. Professional stress often bleeds into emotional distress outside of work. However, emotional energy is renewable when we play to our strengths, let go of the past and build affirmative routines.

Building on our strengths means that we have a clear sense of our personal identity and style. Our identity creates a reputation for who we are and who we are not. Our style determines how we go about facing the challenges of the day. An HR leader I know has a reputation for getting things done and a style of including others in the decision-making process. She maintains her emotional balance by not trying to become someone she is not and by using her strengths to solve today's problems.   

In a rapidly changing business environment, what worked in the past may not work in the future. Letting go of past failures by learning from them and of past successes by building on them enables an HR leader to prepare for the future by working in the present. Staffing, training and compensation programmes that worked in a growth economy may not work as well in a declining economy. Holding onto the past emotionally disables us whereas preparing for the future enables us.

Psychologists suggest that affirmation is catching. When we express gratitude and appreciation to others, they reciprocate and we feel better about ourselves. Seeing the good does not mean turning a blind eye to what's wrong but focusing on what is right builds rather than destroys positive energy.

The outcome of emotional wellbeing is resilience where the challenges we face become opportunities for development more than obstacles for discouragement. When emotionally grounded leaders fail they bounce back with renewed insights and energy.

To be continued...