In the zone: finding HR’s perfect balance

Researchers conducted a study to identify what drives HR professionals to reach their full potential – and what forces them in the opposite direction.

A study conducted by Deakin University’s John Molineux and human performance researcher and consultant Adam Fraser delved into the factors that help HR enter “the zone” – their optimum state for working.

According to Fraser, the research found key areas that lead HR professionals into ‘flow’ or stress.

The researchers studied 821 HR professionals, who varied in age, role, seniority and years of experience.

There were five key areas which affected HR’s performance.
  1. Changing pressure
Increased work pressure, such as more deadlines and greater expectations, led to a greater amount of flow. HR managers tended to experience a higher level of flow at work as the use of skills, interest in and challenge of the work is significantly higher than for lower roles such as HR generalists.

However, pressure did not result in greater flow when the individual perceived that this pressure was a bad thing.

“Whether we view pressure as a challenge or a threat is a critical skill,” Fraser said. “HR professionals performed better when they felt ‘safe’ and able to stretch themselves without fear of persecution.”

He advised that if an organisation wants its HR team members to be at their best, they need to be given work that stretches them and builds capability – but it is vital that the stretch “is not so far it overwhelms them”.
  1. Digressions
Participants in the study said that the time spent on communication dramatically reduced their capacity to work actively.

The results showed that across all HR roles, 42.7% of time was spent providing advice, in meetings or on emails. If conflict resolution, interviews, reports and training were added, this rose to 63.9%.

Many HR professionals said that this prevented them from fulfilling their employers’ expectations of them working strategically; across all HR roles, time spent on strategy was 7.8%, and for HR managers this only rose to 9.9%.
  1. Interruptions
Researchers found that interruptions during the working day dramatically drove up stress and drove psychological flow down.

It was also found that the effect of interruptions correlated with personality: the more introverted a person was, the more distressed interruptions made them.

“The takeaway here is that HR managers are constantly being diverted from strategic work to address immediate issues,” Fraser said. “There is a need to delegate this work wherever possible or respond to it in more innovative ways, including using self-help for client managers.”
  1. Work-life balance
According to the study, greater levels of work-life balance led to more time “in flow” at work.

When boundaries between work and home were high – for example when individuals were not able to work from home – performance was reduced.

“People who really enjoy work don’t mind if it spills into home time, as long as it doesn’t impact on home negatively,” Fraser said. “The key message is, do you find work enjoyable? Work out what ‘balance’ means for you, and how you can minimise work interference by setting realistic boundaries.”
  1. Support networks
A lack of support naturally leads to stress – but the researchers’ findings suggest that HR is better-equipped to work well in the face of this issue.

Across the board, HR professionals said they severely lacked resources, which led to HR managers performing operational work as well as a high percentage of advisory work.

According to Fraser, organisations need to remember the importance of asking: “who is looking after HR?”

“The nature of HR often means that you are supporting others and rarely looking after yourself,” he said. “In a way, it seems that [HR] has no one they can turn to and offload.”

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