The CHRO Cape Town Summit puts HR leaders at the forefront of self-care


It was a mini-workshop on compassion fatigue that left everyone feeling rejuvenated and re-energised.

On 18 April,during the CHRO Summit held at the 180 Lounger in Cape Town, Lauren Davis, a health activist, and Lana Hindmarch, co-founder of BREATHE, discussed an often overlooked part of the HR profession: the HR professionals themselves, and how they, among other things, deal with issues like compassion fatigue.

The two experts were attempting to highlight the hidden struggles that HR workers face as a result of the selflessness that their roles require. It’s all good and well to look after your people, but who is caring for the caregivers?

What exactly is compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring for others or for their emotional distress, which results from the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. It is also referred to as vicarious or secondary trauma, referring to how someone else’s trauma can become their own.

“Compassion is not about running out of compassion for others. It comes naturally to us to have compassion for others as human beings,” Lauren said. “However, the overlap is not having enough left over for ourselves: when you’re essentially continuing to pour from an empty cup.”

CHRO South Africa community manager Sungula Nkabinde agreed, and added that HR has had to deal with a lot and step up to the forefront in recent years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Loss, grief, and retrenchment all come to mind, all of which have accelerated.

“HR professionals are not necessarily equipped to deal with these kinds of issues, and delivering the ‘bad news’ while managing oneself was not easy during this time,” he explained. HR executives must be continuously sympathetic, but this can be exhausting – how should they deal with it?”

Lana Hindmarch used the country’s energy crisis and the concept of retaining one’s own or rather recharging your batteries to set the scene.

“With all this talk around our current energy crisis and the myriad of other issues that the country deals with,” she said, “I am curious as to why not much is being said about the potential human crisis that would or is already emerging.”

Lana was referring to the fact that, like loadshedding, we were running low on energy. Furthermore, the energy issue has increased our stress, contributing to compassion fatigue and draining our own batteries.

“Energy is the most precious resource in our organisations today and without it we can’t put our leaders/people’s talent to life,” she noted.

Lana referenced a 2020 Gallup Worldwide survey, which found that roughly seven in 10 people are struggling or suffering in their lives, “either with depression, anxiety or some mental health issue, and HR is at the coalface of that,” she said.

“In this volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) world, technology also has to be added to the mix, and how it has made it even more difficult to disconnect as demand has also increased,” Lana added.

Lana further pointed out that within any organisation HR departments are struggling the most with burnout and the like: “How do we care if our own tanks are empty as HR professionals? Thinking about other people in this state is simply impossible. As far as culture is concerned, we live in a world where working long hours is won as a badge of honour.”

According to Lana, this unhealthy attitude of normalising working long hours leads to exhaustion, which leads to rage. HR leaders are reacting to burnout with rage, which is exacerbated by a variety of variables.

Practical solutions 

Lana's approach/solution for shifting from managing our time to managing our energy is straightforward: prioritise the four springs/sources of energy, which include physical, emotional, mental, and purpose energy. Some quick replenishing tools include:

Physical energy – getting more sleep
Emotional energy – get out of fight or flight mode by breathing
Mental energy – prioritising the most important task first thing in the morning
Purpose energy – connect with the why you do what you do.

“Compassion fatigue is a less spoken about condition which is a real thing, and my job and my organisation’s role is to monitor the levels of this compassion fatigue,” said Lauren. “Compassion fatigue is more applicable in the HR profession than another profession.

“The juggle is real! It’s difficult to meet all of your requests when you have a lot going on. It’s like trying to juggle plates.”

Lauren also used the lighthouse analogy: we are treating our bodies like a lighthouse, consistently burning without taking a breather, and just like a matchstick, watching it (or ourselves) burn out. “Don’t wait! If you don’t make time for your wellness, you’ll be forced to make time for your illness,” she warned.

She also shared signs and symptoms to look out for, including both emotional and physical exhaustion, the causes being trying to do it all without prioritising “I’ve got this, they’re counting on me. Yes! But you don’t have to do it on your own,” she said.

During the most interactive part of the evening, an exercise called the thinking pairs, attendees were asked to enjoy the attention of the other person seated next to them for the next three minutes (a total of six minutes) without interruption, and more importantly listening attentively and not responding, as tempting as it was. The question put to each person to answer while the other listened, was: “Where are you in relation to the human energy crisis/compassion fatigue continuum – as an individual and as an HR leader?”

Unsurprisingly, some of the comments were directly related to Lana’s earlier comment about the epidemic heightening our compassion fatigue and the coping techniques they employ to deal with it. On the job, the results were similar to some extent because, as HR experts, they are most empathetic towards others, but at home, the results diverged due to the diverse lives they led.

They were then split into groups of four, taking a minute each, followed by some crowdsourcing/brainstorming best practice, and looking at what others are doing to fortify at work and overcome the constraints (a total of 15 minutes). This time the question was, “What do you already know you should be doing differently at work, but don’t, because of constraints?”

Once again, things such as working longer than you should, work-life balance, rage, and managing one’s time and energy resurfaced.

“In the end, there is no silver bullet for dealing with compassion fatigue, however finding solutions requires ongoing experimentation. A mindset shift would be a wonderful place to start, and asking, what else can I do to reduce stress, weariness, and overload without adding strain to my already overburdened schedule?” Lauren concluded.

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