Tears on my pillow: why is HR so unhappy?

The smiling and confident image of the nation’s HR professionals has been shattered by a poll highlighting them as the most unhappy workers in the UK. Ross Wigham reports

At a time of unprecedented recognition of HR management practices, it seems that its professionals are the least happy of an unhappy bunch – the employees they provide services for are among the most disaffected in Europe.

The World at Work Survey of more than 14,000 employees shows that just 47% of UK workers are happy with their current position, with HR staff the least happy of all on just 39%.

The poll, by recruitment company Kelly Services, shows British employees are particularly dissatisfied with remuneration levels, health benefits and training opportunities – all areas where HR has a major responsibility.

A separate study, by research firm Explorandum, reports that HR staff are the least able to cope with ‘milestone events’ such as divorce or a death in the family, with almost a third admitting to taking anti-depressants or sleeping pills.

HR’s bad press

HR consultant Paul Kearns said the current malaise stems from HR staff feeling unappreciated and undervalued by colleagues and the rest of mainstream business in general.

“HR gets criticised from all sides. When line managers get themselves into trouble they expect HR to sort it out for them and the function is often used to break bad news to staff,” he said.

Many HR professionals fear their role will be outsourced while others feel they are being victimised from every angle. Kearns also blames a lack of strategic input and too little control over operations for the collective unhappiness facing the profession.

“HR is criticised for being too expensive, practitioners have very little control over what they do and at the moment it’s not a particularly nice place to work. HR has too few directors on the board and still hasn’t achieved credibility as a function,” he added.

Angela O’Connor, vice president of SOCPO and HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service, also refuted claims that HR is suffering a communal melancholy.

“It contradicts lots of other research. I spend my life around HR people, and as a profession they are not miserable. HR is just about the best place to be in an organisation. It’s a satisfying role where you can have a direct impact on an organisation. But if HR is unhappy what on earth is that doing to businesses?

“The negative side of the job is hard, but it can’t always be about the cuddly stuff – that’s not what the job is about. The bad stuff is balanced by the really positive aspect of the role – getting the best out of people,” she added.

So, the experts’ opinion is split and it seems the profession has something of a schizophrenic mindset, with HR either ecstatic or chronically depressed, depending on who you believe.

“I’ve been in HR for 27 years and the profession has always been unhappy. There is too much naval-gazing and most of the problems are of HR’s own making,” Kearns concluded.

How to address the problem

Based on work carried out by workplace consultancy Saville Consulting, director Ed Hurst outlines the key areas that have a crucial part to play in individuals’ happiness and well-being in their jobs.

Person-environment fit – are you comfortable, happy and effective in the environment and culture of your organisation? Although most effort is generally invested in looking at person-job match, it is often this wider issue that has a massive impact on happiness in the longer term.

Personality and values fit – do your organisation and job fit well with your personality and values? If you are involved in something that blends easily with your style, behaviour and values, it is much easier to feel happy and effective.

Talent – are you in a job that allows you to play to your natural strengths? Do you have to expend energy on things that you are not very good at? Generally speaking, people are much happier and more effective if they are doing jobs that draw on things that they are good at.

Inspiration and meaning – are you inspired by your job? Do your managers and leaders inspire you? Are you doing something meaningful? People feel much more positive about their jobs if they are doing something that they believe in, or if they feel that they are part of an organisation that is doing something worthwhile.

Fairness and equity – do you feel that your effort and hard work are valued and rewarded fairly? People generally feel much happier if they feel appreciated, and that their efforts are rewarded in a reasonable way. This need not refer only to material reward, but describes that whole experience of being valued.

Autonomy and control – do you feel that you can exercise freedom and control over your own work and destiny? Most people feel much happier if they have a reasonable amount of control. However, people do vary in the amount of autonomy they feel they need.

Relationships – do you have the kind of work relationships that you want with your manager, colleagues, and other work associates?

Practical and environmental factors – does the physical environment of your workplace appeal to you and make you comfortable? Does the practical aspect of your work make you happy?

Long-term prospects – does your work appeal to your ambitions and future goals?

To address these areas, there are several key things that people can do:



  1. Know yourself – a crucial step to achieving a better balance of the areas described is self-knowledge. What sort of environment and culture are you happy in? What are your values and motives? What are the areas in which you are talented? What are your ambitions and goals? Be honest about yourself – about the things you are good at, and the things you are not.
  2. Know your job – what are the actual requirements of your job? How well do these suit you? Are there other ways in which your job could be done to work better for you?
  3. Know your environment – what are your organisation and culture actually like? To what extent do these satisfy your needs?
  4. Know the people around you – understanding your manager and colleagues can go a long way to seeing how things really are – and how easy they might be to change.
  5. The ‘psychological contract’ – which of the issues above form part of an unwritten contract between you and your employer? Many of these things come to be accepted and required over time, but in fact could be changed if we focus on them. It can be helpful to see the psychological contract for what it is, so that we can consciously develop the kind of contract we want.
  6. Things you can change – there are often many things we can change for ourselves. Could you re-organise your job? Could you share activities differently with your team, so that each person is doing more of the things they enjoy and are good at? Could you change your career path? In the end, are you in the right job/organisation?
  7. Things others can help with – your colleagues and manager have a huge impact on you and your wellbeing. Can you persuade them to do things differently?

Are you unhappy with your HR role? Is the profession suffering from collective depression? Let us know your thoughts at michael.millar@rbi.co.uk

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