HR Managers and Open Enrollment Stress Amid a Pandemic

October 26, 2021

While most people who work in human resource management are not behavioral health professionals, they are subject to some of the same psychological conditions behavioral counselors frequently face. One of those conditions is compassion fatigue, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the “stress-related symptoms experienced by caregivers and other helping professionals in reaction to working with traumatized people over an extended period of time.”  

In even the best of times, HR work inevitably involves providing support to individuals who may be facing extreme stress or trauma.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people experiencing trauma has increased exponentially. Now, with the pandemic nearing its 21st month just as organizations are entering the open enrollment period for employee benefits, HR professionals find themselves facing a sort of occupational perfect storm, at heightened risk of year-end burnout.  

Employers — placed on high alert by the pandemic-era workplace phenomenon variously known as the “Great Resignation,” the “Big Quit” and other nicknames — are aware of work-related burnout and the toll it can take, but are they taking adequate steps to combat it? Or, as Time recently put it: “The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Finally Getting Companies to Take Burnout Seriously. Is It Enough?’” 

Human resource professionals and other managers are invited to join Alera Group for a one-hour webinar designed to address these questions and help get you and your team through the challenges ahead. Featuring a trained clinical psychologist, “Mental Health: Managing Stress and Year-End Burnout” will take place on Thursday, November 18, beginning at 1 p.m. CST. Participants online for the duration of the program will be eligible for a continuing-education credit from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). 

The Toll on Women  

In October 2022, Harvard Business Review published an article by six McKinsey and Co. researchers titled “Women Do More to Fight Burnout – and It’s Burning Them Out.” Based on the McKinsey report “Women in the Workplace 2021,” the HBR article states: 

“Burnout is real and getting worse. The numbers are discouraging, for both men and women: 42% of women and 35% of men in Corporate America have felt burned out in the last few months (up from 32% and 28% respectively last year). One in three women surveyed say they have considered downshifting or leaving the workforce altogether. (Last year, it was one in four.)” 

One anonymous executive cited in “Women in the Workplace 2021,” says of her experience during the pandemic, “It’s the only time I’ve seriously considered a less demanding job. I interviewed for a job with another company. I just felt burned out so often. I probably cried more days than I did not. I felt caught in the middle of everyone’s emotional responses. It was the hardest working year of my life.” 

While the percentage of corporate women reporting feelings of burnout is significantly greater than the percentage of men, the composition of the HR workforce is overwhelmingly female. According to data analysis by the jobs and career website Zippia, 67.5% of the nation’s almost 300,000 human resource managers are women. Although neither the McKinsey report nor the Zippia analysis specifically address feelings of burnout among women in human resources, it seems logical to deduce that it’s at least somewhere in the range of the 42% figure reported by McKinsey. 

What Is Burnout? 

Increased pressure doesn’t always lead to burnout — some researchers emphasize a distinction between burnout and less serious work-related stress — but few would argue that the symptoms of burnout are widespread. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” rather than a medical condition, and defines it as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to WHO, burnout is “characterized by three dimensions: 

  • “Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 

  • “Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; 

  • “Reduced professional efficacy.” 

Whether due to full-blown burnout, symptoms of the occupational phenomenon or other factors, these factors have undoubtably contributed to the Great Resignation. The net effect has been, as Time reported, “Every month from April to August 2021, at least 2.5% of the American workforce quit their jobs. In August alone, more than 4.2 million people handed in their two weeks’ notice, according to federal statistics.” 

Employer Support and Employee Retention 

A recent exploration by CNBC poses the question, “Companies prioritized mental health during Covid, so why are we still so burned out?” 

“During the spring and summer of 2020, in response to the health crisis and then a national recognition of racial disparities, leaders shepherded workers to existing mental health resources like employee resource groups and crisis hotlines,” CNBC notes. “They unveiled new perks to help people process the unrelenting pace of change, such as access to teletherapy, subscriptions to mental health and meditation apps, resiliency coaching and paid time off.” 

Nevertheless, in 2021, workers feel employer support for their mental health is declining, according to a new report from meQuilibrium. The reason, meQuilibrium’s chief science officer told CNBC, is that many organizations “now have to turn around and figure out how to be competitive, make money and change their business for a new era of work.” 

The authors of the McKinsey report cite three actions companies can take to alleviate burnout and counter the Great Resignation:  

  1. “Set company-wide working norms to take some of the pressure off managers;  

  2. “Equip managers with the training and resources they need to lead;  

  3. “Formally recognize their efforts by making managers’ support of their employees part of their performance reviews.” 

 At Alera Group, we incorporate such measures while offering clients as well as employees an integrated approach to wellness that includes: 

  • Wellbeing culture and consulting 

  • Thought leadership and education 

  • Assessment and data collection 

  • Innovative and engaging platforms and programs 

  • Enhanced and novel solutions. 

It’s an approach designed to improve employees’ working conditions and help employers engage, support, retain and attract top talent

Next Steps 

A one-hour webinar isn’t a panacea for burnout or its symptoms, but Alera Group’s November 18 presentation will answer questions and offer solutions. Participants will come away with resources and strategies to better take care of their own mental health, and that of their team, during this busy time of year. 

To register, click on the link below. 


About the Author  

Andrea Davis

Director of Wellbeing

Alera Group Northeast 

As the Director of Wellbeing, Andrea Davis is responsible for assisting with the development, implementation and evaluation of comprehensive wellbeing strategies for existing and prospective Alera Group Northeast clients.  

Contact information: