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HR, WTF Are You Trying To Prove?

burnout hr leadership Jul 08, 2022

I was going to post a different article with you today, but this feels like the words that I need to share today. And I’m mad, frustrated, heartbroken, sad and overwhelmed by the messages I’ve received this week and the conversations I’ve had, so here goes.

Yesterday I shared that it was 9 years since I had the first of two operations in 48 hours as a result of the physical impact of my burnout in 2013, the burnout that almost killed me, and the burnout that I refused to admit to, working from my hospital bed because I didn’t want to let anyone down, I didn’t want to seem like I had failed, I ‘needed’ to be there for my team. And whilst I was recovering and numbing from the daytime TV I’d been consuming as I lay on the sofa, the day that my sons came home from school and I said to them ‘don’t worry Mum will be back at work soon’ because for me my ability to work or not seemed to prove how healthy I was, resulted in them saying ‘but Mum we don’t want you to go back to work, your job is killing you’, and that was the kick in the gut I needed to show that something needed to change. 

And I did.

I realised that my reason for joining HR had fallen on the back burner because of the toxic environment I was working in. Instead of doing what I’ve done throughout my whole career that had gotten me headhunted for the big position I wanted, vanished, because I stopped believing in myself and my ability, and instead felt I needed to change in order to fit into the toxic environment, and whilst I was still standing my ground, I was doing so from a place of anger, exhaustion and fear – because I could see what would happen if I didn’t stand up for the people in the organisation, and yet the toxic women on the Exec team and the two consultants working alongside them were bullies, wearing me down, tearing me down, backing me into corners and excluding me, and my boss was doing the same, but worse.

And I decided no more. I was going back to work as me, the real me, I even got a funky new haircut and some awesome new clothes, a new look, to show that I was different. And within three months I’d left, because I was never going to fit and I knew I could make more of a positive impact and help many others just like me if I left and went out on my own.

A few months after I left, my replacement died whilst in her sleep at a leadership residential, and I then discovered that many before me, in the same role, had all become seriously ill. I got in touch with the CIPD to see what they were doing to support HR, was told to contact my EAP provider and when I realised this wasn’t good enough, I created the world’s first Mental Wellbeing for HR Programme, work with HR on helping to prevent burnout and still continued to consult with organisations on large scale change projects.

In 2020, I realised that I needed a change, I just wanted to coach, empower and develop leaders and in January 2021 I started Kelly Swingler Ltd, focusing much more widely than just HR, because the majority of the people I was working with were not in HR.

The majority of what I heard from HR was ‘you’re too expensive’, ‘I know I need the help but I don’t have the time right now’, ‘I’ll come back to you in a few months’, ‘the Exec team won’t pay’, ‘we only do free training for HR in this company’, ‘my boss will never go for it’, ‘I just don’t have the time’ and so many other and similar reasons. The underlying message ‘I’m not worth it’.

And as much as I had the passion and drive to keep working exclusively with HR, and speaking at events and driving and creating the change, I also have a business to grow and bills to pay, and free and exposure do not pay my bills or keep the roof over my families head. So still with a drive to prevent burnout, because I know that we can prevent burnout, I widened my net, and I work with some bloody amazing clients. And everything I deliver now, my coaching, my online programme, my Power Up event, my workshops, are all making a difference, but only to a handful of HR peeps.

I received a couple of DM’s from LinkedIn trainers on Wednesday telling me that my recent posts are bombing and letting me know they could help me. What they don’t see are the messages, emails and calls from people, mainly HR letting me know that they have reached burnout, that my messages always help them, and that they are trying to make change, and that for some, they are now seriously ill.

And I’m sharing a few snippets here, because whilst my messages are helping, they clearly aren’t making the message clear enough, or the drive to change urgent enough.

“I’ve had physical symptoms for about 3 weeks, I’ve been pushing those aside too; until this week, when Saturday I ended up in hospital and wasn’t discharged until Tuesday. Why as HR are we not able to practice what we preach? Why do we feel the need to push ourselves so excessively, whilst telling everyone else the opposite, until we get to the point where we are so unwell we can’t look after ourselves, let alone anyone else. It’s not okay that HR have no one and are pushed to the brink of expiry.”

 “I received your book on Saturday, thank you, and was then admitted to hospital on Sunday, I’m hoping to be home today, and I know I need to make the change. If it’s ok I’ll be in touch for coaching when I’m back at work”

 “I am currently off work with anxiety and exhaustion as a direct result of work. I have never been off with anything like this before. It has knocked the stuffing and my confidence out of me. Occupational health advice was quite sobering in how long this could take to address and how much worse it could have been. I have tried so hard to protect my team from burnout over the past years in responding on Covid and varied refugee crisis that I didn’t see it coming for me..I am beginning now to see the signs were there and am trying to work through this now. I am in the guilt and anger stage of acceptance of this.”

 And then some of the conversations that I’ve had this week include”

 “I need to take some time off but I just don’t have time in my diary”

 “I can’t do it anymore, it’s ruining my life, and I’m broken”

 “I wish I’d asked for help sooner, but I didn’t want to admit how bad it had gotten or that I had failed”

And all of these messages break my heart. Because I know it doesn't have to be this way, and I will do all I can to support, listen and help these people, but I cannot do it on my own.

So what are you trying to prove HR?

 Myself and others like me, who have been to burnout and back, keep sharing our experiences and creating servies to help you, but when it comes to your own wellbeing, you don’t seem that bothered. It’s like you think you don’t matter. Like you need to be the ultimate people pleasers, that you need to actually break and end up in hospital seriously ill before you’ll admit that something needs to change.

You’ll attend another course to help you learn more about HR, or a different way of doing HR but coaching, support, wellbeing, empowerment – no thank you – we’re HR we know what we’re doing!

 I never thought burnout would happen to me, ever. And yet the signs were there.

 Underperformers, people that don’t give a shit about their work, people with no drive or passion, they aren’t burning out. They aren’t stressed. They aren’t feeling broken.

 And whilst myself and others can talk about burnout, how to prevent it and changes to make, only YOU can actually make the change, realise you are at risk of burnout and take preventative action to be the very best that you can, actually unstoppable rather than just thinking you are.

 When I left the organisation I was in to go into my HRD role, I actually had my head imposed on Wonderwoman’s body on my leaving card, because I was seen as Wonderwoman, I didn’t feel it, I always felt like I had a point to prove, more to achieve, more of a difference to make, but I was seen that way. And I worked my arse off every day.

 I often jokingly say that I experienced burnout, and the pain, so that others didn’t have to, but now it seems that so many others of you are ending up in the same place, because like me, you never thought it would happen to you.

 So what’s it going to take HR? What exactly do you need to see or hear in order for you to take action to prevent you from getting to burnout? Because with every poll I see and report I read and discussion I’m part of, you know there’s a problem, and yet nothing is changing – until you end up in hospital, scared, ill and still feeling guilty about all of the work that’s not getting done whilst you’re off.

 And you can tell me it’s the Exec team or your boss not supporting you, and you can tell me they won’t invest or allow you take time off, and that they are the reason you’re feeling as bad, exhausted and burned out as you do, but what are YOU doing for you? Are you setting the boundaries? Are you influencing the workload and decisions? Are you highlighting the risks to the business of what will happen if HR crumble? Are you reaching out for help and insisting it’s paid for, because you know every other team gets the support they ask for?  

 Or are you still pushing harder than ever, to prove that you can do it all and be it all to everyone?

 HR has a burnout problem. It’s had one for over 10 years. And you know that. Because you’re the ones ticking the poll boxes and helping with the reports that highlight the issue. But you’re not part of the solution.

 And you might think that you’re the shining example of hard work, but in fact, you’re not role modelling wellbeing at work. You’re not role modelling the importance of self-care, coaching, development, boundaries, asking for help, getting support, in fact quite the opposite. You’re doing one thing and expecting others to do the same, and in my books, that’s the definition of a hypocrite.

 If you really want to change the world of work and create coaching cultures and highlight the importance of putting people first, you have to be where the change starts, it has to start with you!

 I joined HR because I wanted to stop the Monday to Friday dying syndrome that I saw so many people experience. I wanted to change the world of work, and I still do. I know that when we live and lead from our core we change the world. But like you, I wasn’t do any of that for me, and ultimately, the Monday to Friday dying syndrome almost killed me.

 I’ve got a lot of ways to help you, but you know that already because you see it, and you get in touch, and then you do nothing about it whilst others around you do, but ultimately, the only person that can help you, is you. And you’re either ready or you’re not. But you cannot change the world of from your hospital bed.

 Core-Led leaders do three things

  1. They know who they are at the core
  2. They have very clear boundaries
  3. They take time out for themselves

And currently, I don’t see a lot of this in HR.

 The change has to start, and it has to start with you.


 In 2013 Kelly had a successful leadership career, yet she was burned out, exhausted, and missing out on life with family.

Determined to enjoy the success that she had earned, she's learned to create a life of balance and boundaries that is also highly successful.

Today at, Kelly helps women leaders all over the world to prevent and recover from burnout without giving up their career or jeopardising their wellbeing.


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