The Importance of Self-Care at Work for HR Professionals in Small Businesses

What it takes for overstretched HR teams to care for themselves and transition that to building a supportive company culture for all.
 A young woman with long curly hair smiles with her eyes closed.

As smaller companies with limited HR staff become more aware of the significance of work-life balance as a business imperative, they’re placing a higher value on the importance of self-care at work for their HR teams so HR can in turn promote a healthy work-life balance for the entire company.

To learn more about how this self-care approach might work, we chatted with Julie Develin, Senior Partner, HCM Advisory & Human Insights at UKG. Julie’s experience as an HR practitioner informs her insight into what it takes for overstretched HR teams to care for themselves and transition that to building a supportive company culture for all.  

Q: Julie, tell us about your past experience as an HR professional in a smaller business environment.

Julie: Sure. My HR journey began more than two decades ago at a mid-sized company that lacked a dedicated HR department. Essentially, I was tasked with creating one from scratch. While I started with an HR background from grad school, the real learning began on the job. Over 17 years, I scaled the organization from 150 to around 300 employees, single-handedly building every facet of the HR function. Eventually, the workload necessitated additional support in recruitment, training, and other areas.

The Impact of Unmanaged HR Stress

Q: As an HR department of one for so long, you likely wore many hats and probably felt the weight of constant pressure. With the growing emphasis on workplace self-care, how do you think it applies to HR professionals today?

Julie: Self-care often gets pushed aside for HR professionals in small businesses. They often find themselves as therapists, employee relations experts, and personal confidantes. The sheer volume of stressors they carry can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, they often don’t recognize this burden until it’s too late. The key for HR professionals is to be proactive about self-care and establishing boundaries. This is definitely an area that needs more attention moving forward.

Q: In addition to establishing boundaries, is saying “no” more often ever part of the solution?

Julie: Sure, but saying no in a small business environment can be challenging. Often, there’s simply no one else to delegate HR tasks to. So the issue becomes: how do we manage the workload? I believe a significant part of this involves HR professionals having the confidence and self-awareness to recognize their breaking points and take action to prevent burnout before it sets in. Easier said than done, of course, and I can certainly relate, having faced this situation countless times throughout my career.

Q: When HR professionals reach that breaking point, how does it affect their ability to support employees effectively?

Julie: You can’t take care of others in your company if you’re not able to care for yourself. It’s like the airplane safety instructions: you have to put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others. If you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, you simply can’t be your best self at work. That’s why the importance of self-care at work for HR needs to be a top priority.

The Importance of Self-care at Work: Strategies

Q: Let’s dig into the self-care aspect a bit more. Are there strategies you recommend for HR professionals in small businesses to maintain mental and emotional wellbeing?

Julie: Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this because every HR professional faces unique challenges. They navigate different company cultures, personalities, industries, compliance requirements, resource limitations, and tight budgets. But ideally, everyone at the company would have the opportunity to truly disconnect after work and establish clear boundaries around their personal time. A company culture where it’s not expected to answer emails at 8 p.m. is essential. When employees see HR constantly working late or responding outside of business hours, it sets that expectation for the entire organization. 

In a perfect world, HR professionals would be more aware of the path to overload and identify the tasks and people that drain their time and energy so they could be more proactive about avoiding it. One way would be to push for resources to help lighten their workload, such as HR software that automates tasks so they can focus on higher-value business activities.

Challenges Faced by Smaller HR Teams

Q: It sounds like self-care for HR needs to start with a company culture that reinforces it for everyone. So what can HR professionals do now to help build that kind of culture when their own work environment is so overloaded and stressful?

Julie: It can be difficult. HR is often siloed, even in smaller companies. The key is to focus on the things you can control. This includes advocating for your needs while acknowledging that you can’t achieve everything alone. Building a strong culture is a shared responsibility, and collaboration is key. Finding allies within the organization and garnering support for HR initiatives is crucial. 

It’s not uncommon for leadership to approach HR and say, "Our culture is broken. Fix it." But that’s not how it works. Cultural change needs to start at the top and be reinforced by HR policies that prioritize work-life balance and wellbeing for themselves that ultimately become the norm for the entire company.

The Role of Leadership

Q: Let’s talk more about leadership’s role in promoting self-care for their HR teams and how that can impact the rest of the company.

Julie: Leadership’s role should be to actively encourage self-care, whatever that may mean within the company. For example, while promoting time off is important, it’s not the whole picture. Small businesses in particular need leadership that understands the challenges and limitations faced by their HR teams and works to find solutions. They also need a better understanding of HR’s role. If they’re unsure about what HR does, they need to ask. 

However, the responsibility isn’t solely on leadership. HR professionals need to communicate more proactively about what they do and what they need to ensure their initiatives are successful, and leadership needs to be on board with that from the start. But it usually falls to HR to initiate these conversations, because all too often, they don’t happen unless HR makes the first move.

Think of the workplace as a building with HR as the foundation. Cracks in the foundation will cause the entire structure to crumble. And because business success requires people, profitability hinges on a well-cared-for workforce. Constant turnover, disengaged employees, and a generally negative experience are a recipe for failure, so it’s vital for leadership to support HR’s efforts to care for employees and build a great workplace to ensure business success.

Q: Any final thoughts for the small business HR practitioners reading this? 

Julie: I think it’s important for them to understand that they’re not alone in experiencing burnout and feeling overwhelmed. Burnout can manifest in different ways. It might involve working excessively or, conversely, neglecting previously enjoyed activities due to a lack of time or energy. At its core, HR is a caregiving profession, but it’s different from frontline caregiving. Recognizing that you’re not alone and that you have a network of colleagues to lean on during challenging times is essential to ensuring self-care.

Also, by prioritizing the importance of self-care at work, you can become stronger advocates for yourselves and your teams. This, in turn, will allow you to create a more supportive and positive work environment for your company. Remember, a healthy HR department is the foundation for a healthy company culture on which business growth and success are built. When HR thrives, the entire company benefits. 

Empower HR with UKG Ready

Your HR team plays a crucial role in your organization’s success, but they can’t contribute to that success if they’re overworked and burned out. All-in-one UKG Ready® streamlines people processes for HR, easing their day-to-day burden so they’re able to not only focus on their own wellbeing but can also extend that self-care approach throughout the organization to create a great place to work for all. See it in action