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Learning is the antidote to career fatigue and boredom

Laurie Ruettimann (she/her)

Founder of "Punk Rock HR"

When CEOs asked human resources leaders to step up in March 2020 and help navigate their organizations through the chaos, every person I know prioritized their organization over their individual needs.

No matter what was happening in their private lives, my friends and colleagues in HR stepped up and did it all — from collaborating with IT to create work-from-home programs to partnering with local health departments to deploy rapid testing.

Does that sound like you? Did you step up without question?

Whatever the company needed, no matter the time of day, HR professionals were always there to deliver above and beyond expectations. In fact, that spirit of camaraderie and sacrifice continues to this day.

But now that vaccinations are rolling out and companies are compelling their employees to return to the office, life is slowly going back to normal. Unfortunately, for many HR practitioners, "back to normal" is deeply unsatisfying.

  • You're back to being responsible for delivering bad news.
  • You've been told to manage newly identified cost-cutting initiatives that prioritize short-term metrics over investing in people.
  • You've gone back to fighting the same old battles with workers and leaders alike.

Does any of that feel familiar? Am I hitting too close to home?

If you're an HR professional at a career crossroads, take heart: You can learn your way into a better job. And when you learn and grow, it has a positive effect on the entire business.

Want the antidote to fatigue and boredom? Want to emerge out of your post-COVID fog? Double down on learning and watch your career (and maybe your company) flourish. Here's how.

Learn something new whenever you can

In my new book, Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career, I tell the story of working as an HR manager at an insurance company in Chicago. Although the job looked great on paper, I was extremely bored and found excuses to take long breaks throughout the day. First, I'd spend time at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Then I'd feel guilty about having a job that allowed me to learn about Neo-Expressionist paintings but didn't require me to be useful.

The one bright spot in this dull landscape came when a coworker noticed that I was bored and told me about a certification called the SPHR, which is a senior-level designation in human resources offered by the Human Resources Certification Institute.

She asked, "Why don't you study for the exam? It's not like you have anything else to do."

To be fair, she was right. So I bought a binder full of preparation materials and enrolled in a three-day preparation course at a hotel near O'Hare Airport. The class was taught by Mike Losey, the former CEO of SHRM. Mike worked in human resources for over 40 years, which seemed insane because I didn't even know HR had been around for that long. There wasn't a single thing Mike didn't know about the world of work, and his passion for HR was contagious.

I took the SPHR exam and passed with flying colors on my first try. When my official test results arrived in the mail, I drove to Hobby Lobby and framed the SPHR certificate. The lady behind the counter talked me into a tacky gold frame with red velour matting because it made me look wealthy and successful.

I won't pretend that the SPHR certificate solved all my problems. I continued to wander the streets of Chicago and take architectural boat tours to kill time. But those eight weeks of studying for the SPHR changed my life and taught me that I could love the field of HR and human psychology without loving my specific job.

To this day, despite stepping back from the world of corporate HR, I'm still involved with SHRM and HRCI. And whenever an HR colleague is bored or disaffected, I encourage them to take the SPHR exam or teach the exam materials — challenging themselves to learn something new and mentor the next generation of HR leaders.

So, if you're suffering from post-COVID career fatigue, learn something new. Don't just take my word for it. Harvard Business Review found employees who are learning at work are happier, more engaged, and experience less anxiety and stress.

Here’s what I learned from that experience: I was born to work in human resources, but maybe not as an HR manager. Learning is what saved me from floundering in a career and moved me into consulting. And I know that learning more about HR can open up doors for you.

Learn more about coworkers and organization

Sometimes it takes more than individual learning to move the needle. There are moments when we need to do some deep thinking — combined with a bit of research — to change our lives for the better.

Katie Augsburger is a Portland-based founding partner of Future Work Design. She is a former HR leader turned Employee Experience Strategist with a portfolio of clients rethinking the world of work.

When I told Katie that I was writing an article about how learning can improve a career in human resources, and especially after a pandemic, she immediately highlighted that it’s tough to develop your skills when the world is on fire.

She said, "During the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to focus on anything outside of core needs. Most people I know in HR were asking themselves — How do I survive this? Will I have an income? How will I parent or care for my loved ones while working from home? So for the vast majority of folks, the pandemic was not a time of learning new skills (besides maybe learning about sourdough starters, whatever the heck that is) but, instead, accessing some very core skills of adapting to compounding pressures."

Katie added, "In the first few days of the pandemic, I had grand ambitions to write, to read, to utilize the time for introspection and learning. But the truth was (and is) that it was a time of grief, parenting in new ways, confusion, profound exhaustion, and re-lived trauma — particularly after George Floyd's murder. So, my plans for deep learning and writing went out the window. Unfortunately, I think that is true for many of us."

I asked Katie to reflect on the career dissatisfaction that so many HR professionals feel in their current roles and how this concept of "learning" might be a tool to enable career growth. She suggested that we focus on learning more about prospective employers rather than hyper-focusing on our own perceived skill deficiencies.

Katie said, "Companies are eager to get back to normal. However, it is crucial to pause and ask — What is the normal we seek to get back to? Because for many employees, pre-COVID workplaces were toxic, racist, ableist, and oppressive. Normal did not work for a lot of folks. So instead of wishing to go back to normal, I encourage HR professionals and all job seekers to learn about prospective employers. Evaluate what worked well and for whom. Ask what they have changed, what they are willing to change, and how they will support employees who felt unsafe in a pre-COVID work environment."

Learning about companies and how they align with your values before you jump ship and participate in the "Turnover Tsunami," that's an excellent perspective-building strategy that will aid your career development today, tomorrow and beyond.

Learn how to dig deep and reflect

Jeff Miller is a California-based chief learning officer and vice president of organizational effectiveness at Cornerstone. During the pandemic, Jeff focused on helping his organization get ready to return to work — physically and philosophically.

When I asked him what he learned about learning during the COVID-19 crisis, he said: "The past year provided the greatest opportunity for learning about human behavior that we will probably ever see in our lifetimes. People were learning and growing throughout the pandemic, but the focus was on immediate needs to survive and not necessarily long-term strategies to solve problems."

It turns out that people like you and me — HR practitioners, managers, recruiters, payroll administrators, compensation analysts, benefits specialists, HR business partners — were consuming content about vital topics like communicating virtually, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion.

But, regrettably, we weren't getting to the root of the problems, whether it's individual career dissatisfaction or the systemic bias built into the fabric of many of our policies and programs.

Jeff said, "When a goal is clear and is repeated, we can focus through noise."

So, it's time to get clear on what we want out of a career and an experience at work. How do you do that? Try adopting a learning mindset and ask yourself:

  • What did you learn about yourself during the pandemic?
  • What surprised you about the past year?
  • What skills or behaviors did you learn during the past 12 months?
  • What do you need to unlearn?

Jeff also warned against making assumptions or prescribing solutions too soon for anything, whether it's your career path or a professional challenge that you're facing at work. So, slow down. He said, "The risk is that we miss an opportunity to reflect."

Learn to trust yourself

I hope that you take any career dissatisfaction as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and get crystal clear on what you want. Need a place to start?

  • Learn more about the field of human resources — and all the opportunities and challenges you could tackle — by seeking your certification with HRCI or SHRM.
  • Go easy on yourself for not learning anything new during the pandemic.
  • Before you consider a job change, ask a prospective employer about the true nature of their employees' experiences.
  • Slow down, think about your experiences over the last year, and don't miss an opportunity to reflect. That’s how you grow.

I believe that the act of learning is the antidote to career fatigue, boredom, burnout and frustration. If done right, your learning strategy can positively impact your life and even change the trajectory of an entire organization — whether they're ready for it or not.

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