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While 2020 has undoubtedly been tough for everyone, professionally it has been incredibly challenging for Human Resource departments. They’ve been thrust to the forefront, providing guidance and answers while trying to figure out this ‘new normal’ for themselves.

To understand the current feelings of HR professionals, I spoke to experts across the UK regarding support, stress, and general workplace satisfaction.

Workload changes

When asked if 2020 had affected any change on workload, 89.1% of our respondents suggested they experienced an increase. In comparison, only 10.9% of respondents suggested a decrease or no change in their workload during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While these results aren’t exclusive to HR teams, we did find the levels of increased workload was consistent across industries, organisation size and geographical locations. This shows how vital HR teams have been in ensuring businesses remain open and workforces remain as engaged as possible.

One respondent commented:

“HR had to adapt quickly and were in many cases ‘expected’ to lead and manage.”

Another suggested that being alert to employee wellbeing increased the workload for many HR professionals:

“It has completely changed the priorities for HR teams and intensified the need for skilled people managers to be able to handle employee queries directly and spot the signs of wellbeing issues first. There has also been additional pressure to gather information on how people are feeling and a need to have a "pop up" culture to support remote working and engagement, which is not enough without the support of the wider management team.”

During one conversation with a Head of HR, we spoke about the pressures placed upon the departments. They were expected to watch the latest Government announcements and arrive at the 8:30 management meeting the next morning with a plan to navigate the business through the next stage of lockdown.

Limited time to act on the latest government advice was a key cause of workload-worry:

“HR has needed to prepare itself rapidly to then support the organisation. Short notice shifts in government decisions on furlough, right to work checking and tier levels have created further workload and headaches which have impacted HR service and wellbeing provision significantly.”

Of those reporting a decreased level of work, 33% were furloughed, another 33% were self-employed consultants and 16% were from the creative and media industry. When reporting no change, 25% operated within the education sector, which meant no furlough or variation in staffing levels. However, there was a big change in their business operations with a pivot towards homeschooling and online learning.

The overall results suggest that even with the reduction in project work, the day to day role of HR professionals within a continuously operating company increased. In a majority of cases, this led to an increase in workload, putting extra stresses on not just HR professionals work, but also their personal lives.


When asked if they had experienced excess stress as a direct result of workload changes due to the Coronavirus pandemic, 72.8% of respondents reported they had. A similar figure of HR professionals across the country suggested feeling excessively negative because of their working conditions. When asked for the reasons behind this, the explanations include:

“My team were furloughed but the same level of output was expected”

“Sheer volume and intensity of work trying to support staff who were adjusting to the new work from home arrangements”

“Increased presenteeism feelings, back to back meetings without breaks”

When asked about the leading causes of their stress, a large proportion of comments discussed the difficulties associated with balancing their work and home life.

“Balancing work and parenting”

“I have been a breaking point and felt obliged to work through annual leave, all evenings and weekends, while also dealing with children at home”

The increased workload of HR departments has seen them try and plan for the unknown, this applies even more stress on the experts as they try and manage the business through uncertain times.

“People just expect us to sort things out and we're feeling our way through things just as much as everyone else”

“Before the initial lockdown, I felt under pressure to plan for the unknown”

“Unprecedented issues that everyone relied on you to know answers”

While it’s easy to assume the bigger the HR department the less stress individuals would experience, the results showed that stress levels were high across teams of every size. Below we’ve listed the percentage of respondents experiencing excess stress categorised by the number of people within their HR department.

  • 11 to 15 – 87.5%

  • 16+ –73.3%

  • 0 to 5 – 71.7%

  • 6 to 10 – 62.5%

Even if we focus on the lowest group here, 62.5% is still a significant majority.

Organisational Treatment

Possibly one of the more shocking themes to come out of the research is the comparison of treatment HR professionals felt they gave to their organisations and what they received. 51.1% felt they provided excellent support, but only 12% felt that they received the same level of support in return.

On closer examination, micro organisations (0 – 100 employees) reported the highest levels of excellent treatment received from their business with 20%. Alternatively, large organisations (1500+ employees) reported the lowest levels of excellent treatment from their employers with 6.6%.

Medium-sized businesses reported that 0% gave very poor treatment to their employees. However, 11.8% received very poor levels of support. This is similar to evidence collated regarding small businesses who suggested 0% and 13.3% respectively.

Do these figures play into the age-old number vs person argument? Are HR workforces who feel they are not individually cared for going to continue to provide an excellent service to their customers? Comments included:

“I actually left the organisation because the business as the support was so poor”

“The HR team did not look internally to support itself. We were expected to do more and deliver more with only a little sympathy and a couple of thank you emails”

“Wellbeing for HR is forgotten! Our HR leaders need to recognise the impact on their people and practice what they preach”

The suggestion here is that HR leaders are not looking internally at their team. Is that because HR teams don’t expect support from wider leadership? Or could it be that the HR hierarchy is untouchable, distant or unapproachable?

The future is bright for the HR sector

Whilst research of this nature will largely draw up negative results, there were some positive developments noted by respondents. On a professional level, HR has been given a platform they haven’t had before. The function has gained respect, seniority and a value that previous personnel teams could have only wished for.

“Overall, I feel the pandemic has changed the way HR is seen across businesses, it is seen now as an essential point of contact for information and it is expected we are kept up to date with all changes”

“I think the value HR has added since the pandemic started has been evident”

“It has raised the profile of the function in businesses”

“The pandemic has given rise generally to a greater appreciation of HR”

Leadership teams have leaned heavily on HR professionals to guide them through the pandemic and this has promoted the importance of the department. Levels of satisfaction within the HR community have increased as those working within have taken pride in the work they’ve done during a difficult time.

Positivity relating to team closeness and the achievements of HR teams across the country should not be underestimated.

“It had pushed HR colleagues to the limit but they have risen to each new challenge magnificently”

“As an HR team, we have grown closer together”

“It [has] encouraged organisations to think about flexibility in a whole new light which is a very positive step forward”

Overall there is a feeling of being overwhelmed with workloads and a lack of support. It was well acknowledged they felt they had to put the business’ and their employees’ well-being above their own, which in far too many cases, led to serious health detriment.

However, with a Government-led roadmap set to guide us back to normality over the next few months, HR experts can hold their heads high knowing they guided their colleagues and friends through some of the toughest months faced by any business. Hopefully, leadership teams will take time to reflect upon the struggles and understand the crucial part HR teams play in keeping a business together.

About the author

My name is Jessie Swinfield. I am a nomad, a third culture kid with a totally cute (but often overbearing) obsession with my dog, Frank. I have worked in the HR recruitment world for 5 years now and I really can’t imagine doing anything else.

I love writing about the HR market in my spare time and on top of the day job because I have a real passion and interest in the subject.

How can I help?

Whether you’re an HR professional looking for some help or advice in finding a new HR job, or you’re looking to hire, I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with me today.

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