How Do You Sustain Your Passion for HR?

HR leaders must nurture a sense of curiosity and compassion to avoid professional burnout.

It’s never a good idea to draw generalizations. But in this case, I’ll make an exception. Of all the functions in the corporate world, the HR profession is the most susceptible for emotional erosion. Therefore, the potential for burnout is also among the highest.

Young talent enters the HR profession through a variety of channels, but the prospect of working to serve the people side of the business is almost always a substantial part of the initial attraction. I always cringe when I hear a young voice say, “I’m in HR because I like working with people.” It’s not the naivete that puts me on edge. It’s that I know what’s coming next: Someone in the room is bound to offer the sardonic counter perspective: “Yeah, just wait a couple of weeks, you’ll change your tune.” Hear that? That’s the sound of the first breaking of the young HR heart.

As the years pass, that bundle of hassle that is the HR career heaps experience upon experience to further squelch that initial idealistic impulse. Imagine cutting the strings of a piano–one by one. Every day, every week there is some new “fresh hell” (as poet Dorothy Parker put it) that cuts the HR professional away from the hopeful attachment to whatever promised fulfillment in the early days. Human drama, human frailties, human pettiness, human paperwork, human politics, human complications, human disappointments … eventually that same young idealist will be the one in the room saying to a newbie, “Yeah, just wait … .”

And yet there are those who stick with the profession over decades. Their early passion for HR prevails. How do they do it, when they’re in the middle of it, with years behind them and many years to go? Here are three approaches.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that your role is about helping others.”

–Arte Nathan, former CHRO, Wynn Resorts

Looking back on my career, I see that I was continually energized by trying to help others. You have to be always looking outward to see who needs help and how you can be the one to give it to them.

When I was trying to figure out what my future would be, I applied to both rabbinical seminary and law school and was accepted to both. However, the head of the seminary talked me out of it, since I wasn’t especially religious, there were so many other ways I could help people, he said. So I went into business with a degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell.

The technical aspects of HR didn’t light my fire. I still had to do those things, but I kept looking for ways to help others. While I was at Cornell, I helped develop the initial employee-assistance program. And, later, I implemented it in the gaming industry, when no one was talking about whether HR should get involved in employees’ private substance-abuse issues.

In another instance, a local politician introduced me to an ex-felon, who told me, “I’m looking for a second chance.” For someone like me, who is predisposed to help others, a request like that was hard to ignore.  Someone like this guy isn’t going to screw up his second chance. And so, I retained a parole officer, a local minister, and a member of the local police department to work with me and give him guidance. He turned out to be the first of 400 ex-offenders whom I’ve hired over the years. I’m still involved in this work of helping ex-offenders cross the bridge to employment.

Since I discovered the endless ways of helping others help themselves, my life has spiraled in every direction beyond what I learned at school about what it would mean to be a personnel specialist. Seeing my role as someone who improves the lives and circumstances of people around them has kept me going for over 35 years.

“Manage your energy, in the short, immediate term and long terms.

–Deborah Borg, chief HR and communications officer, Bunge

Reconnect with what engaged you in HR in the first place; then take a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in your organization and your career over time. That will help you manage your energy, as you need to rekindle your passion for your career. Remember what makes you happy and brings you joy in your profession. Keep that an essential part of the work you do.

Carve out time in your days and weeks to reconnect with the people who know you best. I have what I call my personal board of advisors; these are my friends I’ve known since growing up in Australia. They remind me of who I really am. I call them often to create time and space away from whatever negativity I might be experiencing.

Retain your perspective. Most of us in HR are not going to save any lives or kill anyone on an average day. Keep in mind the gravity of any given situation–or lack thereof. Focus on the long-term good you are working toward, and the short-term issues won’t seem so painful.

Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself. There is a lot of power in the human spirit and human mind. We can choose the way we interpret our life’s events and our narratives. Your attitude is the biggest component in the way you experience your career, and it will ultimately decide your destiny.

Give yourself time horizons. Over my career, making a change every three years or so has kept my energy fresh. If something is critically wrong for me in some way, I tell myself that if I still feel that way in 12 months, I’ll start thinking about making a change then. This approach allows me to have patience. More often than not, that target date comes and goes, and by then I’ve forgotten all about the situation that was making me so unhappy a year before.

Finally, remember that a break from HR doesn’t have to be permanent. You can actually leave the profession for a while and return to it when the time is right. The HR career really is a “choose your own adventure” proposition.

“Be curious about the entire business, not just HR.”

–John Sigmon, former CHRO, AARP

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci right now, and I keep thinking about how the archetypal Renaissance Man is a great example of approach to life and work, from which HR professionals can find inspiration. The Renaissance Man was curious about all aspects of what it means to be human–art, science, math, perspective, light, systems and the integration of systems. HR professionals would benefit from that same kind of curiosity as to how all those seemingly disparate things work together to make a great company, in which people can bring their own passion for excellence and making a difference.

It’s not a coincidence that it was during the Renaissance period that the technique of perspective in art was discovered. This is what allows us to see a cherub’s rounded, bare foot extending beyond the framed canvas out into the gallery toward us. In HR we have the tools and techniques to integrate multiple perspectives inside the frame of a business challenge. And, in the Renaissance period, artists developed the skills that enabled them to depict their subjects as distinct, recognizable individuals with personality. In HR today, we have the tools and techniques that have enabled our employees to bring their full authentic natures to work as distinct, recognizable individuals.

The modern CHRO needs to spend less time within HR and more time in the rest of the business and out in the community. We can keep our enthusiasm for our work rekindled by constantly exploring the totality of everything inside our businesses.

Deep, abiding curiosity has kept me going. When you’re curious about something, by definition, you don’t have the final answer. Oh, you may have answers, but you’re still searching for what other possibilities may exist. If we use the Renaissance Man as our role model, we have to acknowledge the fact that all those discoveries that took place during that period were driven by curiosity.

In my work life so far, I’ve had five very distinct careers. And this is the one I’m most passionate about. HR is a profession in which curiosity is both needed and rewarded.

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Martha Finney
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at