The Loneliness of Leadership in HR

The Loneliness of Leadership in HR

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focussed on the topic of loneliness and how it’s connected to our mental health.

It’s easy to believe that loneliness comes from solitude but – to best support each other – it’s vital to understand that it can also come from a sense of abandonment or overwhelm in a professional setting.

This has been made much worse by all of the additional risk factors that we have experienced over the last couple of years.

Professionally, we can all experience periods of loneliness caused by a number of factors. But a recent report carried out by Workvivo suggests that 98% of HR professionals are facing burnout, which is strongly linked to a sense of isolation and a feeling of being unsupported.

If you combine this with the innate sense of loneliness that being in a leadership position can bring, it suggests that the very people who are charged with the collective wellbeing of an organisation may just be those at the highest risk of work-related mental illness.

And it’s worth remembering that leadership does not necessarily only refer to those in senior management positions but can include anyone acting as a catalyst for positive change, particularly in trying circumstances.

The Paradox

Because of the human-centred nature of it, HR teams have traditionally been tasked with the function of wellbeing in organisations, the result being that they are meant to be supporting others whilst they may be struggling themselves.

Whilst I see the reason behind this, there is a challenge that, particularly in relation to mental health, HR staff may not see themselves as experts which can add to the sense of pressure.

Workvivo’s research suggests that, to further confuse the issue, during the pandemic many HR teams were tasked with ensuring psychological safety in organisations and giving the bad news of redundancies. These conflicting roles are only likely to contribute further to a sense of isolation – perceived or real – that many members of HR staff have been feeling in recent times.

On top of that, overwhelmed and over-stressed HR partners find it incredibly difficult to role model the healthy behaviours that they are promoting to their colleagues, adding further risk factors to their mental health.

So, there is a lot of pressure on HR staff and this often escalates to the senior members of those teams and departments, with the potential to cause significant feelings of loneliness; both professional and personal.

So, what can be done to reduce that feeling of isolation and alienation?

Sharing The Burden

Historically, HR departments have been seen by many as the first port of call in all matters wellbeing, particularly around mental health.

I have been one of those leaders who was so ignorant about mental health that I had no confidence to address the subject in the way that I led teams and so leant on the HR function to fill my knowledge gap.

I think this is relatively common across society; there is a real gap between the ignorance around mental health in much of society and the expertise held by experts, whether they are HR professionals or clinicians.

It really is time that we started to explore this gap and believe that, with the right support and encouragement, managers can develop the skills and confidence to play their part in the solution, particularly with preventative measures in how they lead and manage their teams.

Leaders across organisations can be actively involved in supporting and optimising the mental health of their teams, with HR fulfilling second line support functions, thus removing a significant burden from already over-stretched departments.

Perhaps more importantly, this self-help approach overcomes the challenge of centrally directed initiatives; detailed insight into what is going on at lower levels is difficult from the centre.

To be effective, much of the requisite preventative work has to be done at the team level; it is becoming increasingly obvious that developing psychological resilience is a team sport that needs to be driven by the team and enabled by the leader.

Additionally, HR-led wellbeing initiatives can create bottlenecks, whether that is logistical issues such as planning training or more practical like seeking support or achieving the all-important early interventions.

So it becomes evident that properly planned and resourced devolution of basic awareness and skills to teams and managers can not only benefit those teams, but also reduce the pressure and workload on HR.

Beyond Tick-Box to Transformation

But such a devolution can only successfully be achieved with buy-in from the organisation’s senior leadership. It is only when the rest of the organisation genuinely believes that they have the time, space and permission to engage with a topic like mental health that it is possible to move from a tick-box exercise to a truly transformative process.

Another compounding issue that can affect the experiences of HR professionals is a sense that they are not valued in their organisations; Workvivo’s report found that only 29% of those surveyed felt that their work was valued by the wider organisation and are rarely present on boards.

Along with feeling undervalued, HR departments reported being under-resourced with 73% saying they don’t have the tools and resources they need to do their job well.

So, we can see that senior executives can support HR leaders by genuinely engaging with the concepts of wellbeing and workplace mental health by funding it and providing HR teams and the leaders with the funding, resources and support to carry out a fundamental task that is expected of them – addressing mental health and wellbeing – on top of more traditional HR functions.


Properly supported and communicated, a devolved and de-centralised approach to mental health training, awareness and ultimately culture change can benefit not only the teams that engage with it, but also the over-stretched and isolated HR teams that are currently at risk of burnout themselves and, the data suggests, at risk of leaving the organisation when they are needed the most.


Diving deeper into this Hot-Topic join Gail Sampson, HR Director, Sovos, Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer, The Granite Group, and Eleos Co-Founder, Olly Church for a live webinar focusing on how as an HR Leader, you can generate the time, space, and permission to become empowered in your role and lose the loneliness.

All eligible attendees will receive one month’ access to the Genesis system to support their HR team.*

  • June 17th, 2022
  • 1230 BST​

For more information and to register, follow the link here – we look forward to seeing you in the session!

And, if you would like to talk to us about support in HR, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by: Olly Church, Co-Founder

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