Talent Acquisition
5 min read
February 10, 2022

How to reduce recruiter burnout — according to psychological research.

Leaders don’t have to sit back and let burnout take a toll on their recruiter corps. Research in human behavior helps us understand how our business choices can make a difference.

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Burnout. We’ve all heard the term plenty of times. A quick scan finds dozens of recent articles about the topic, from advice on avoiding burnout to reports of the effects of burnout on the workforce. Then there’s attention paid to specific types of burnout we might feel, like a general “pandemic burnout” or “remote-work burnout.”

It’s enough to make you burnt out on the term “burnout.” 

To understand what we can learn about burnout at work, and how we can take steps to address it beyond short-term solutions, let’s focus on the effect burnout is having on one sector in particular: talent acquisition professionals.

Why am I, an organizational psychologist with an interest in burnout, focused on recruiters? 

It comes down to two big issues affecting this role: the long-term uncertainty of the volatile labor market in recent years, and the never-ending nature of hiring. After all, there’s effectively nowhere for a recruiter to hide. A recruiter’s got to recruit.

Here’s just one example of the challenges: Workforce participation saw a steep drop between February and April 2020 and has yet to recover the loss, growing by just half a percent between August 2020 and January 2022. The available pool of workers has been hovering about 1.5% smaller than it was immediately before the pandemic began.

Recruiters have been running on a hamster wheel.

A hamster wheel? It feels like that at times, doesn’t it? Go, go, go, but rarely get ahead. 

As a mom, I can appreciate the old saying, “A mother’s work is never done.” This applies all too well to the job of a recruiter these days — a recruiter’s work is never done.

The never-ending nature of hiring is a particularly strong source of burnout potential. One sign of burnout is what we call a “perception of reduced personal achievement.” A burnt out person begins to feel like they’re not keeping up, unable to meet goals like they once did. That’s a subjective feeling that is often unrelated to actual performance.

With payrolls feeling every bit of the “revolving door” cliche, a recruiter can get roped into that underperformance mindset. One can develop the impression that no matter what they do, they never catch a breather.

This suggests that a way to combat burnout is to take away that tiresome “jogging in place” feeling by enabling recruiters to focus less on administrative to-do’s, and more on enriching,  individualized tasks where they can more readily see their impact. I’m talking about more time for the stuff that requires connectedness and creativity — parts of the job that rely on a recruiter’s talents for reading people.

If your attention is away from repetitive tasks that make the workweek seem futile at times, and is instead focused on more varied and strategic work, you’re less likely to fall into a span of believing yourself to have achieved too little. That’s why it’s smart to automate the repetitive tasks. Rather than draining human capital, you’re conserving it for the elements of talent acquisition that humans do better.

Better mindsets by easing obsessive focus.

Psychologists have learned more about what triggers burnout — and what can be protective against it. We’ve investigated the role of our enthusiasm for a job, what we often call “passion.” But it turns out all “passion” isn’t the same – nor is it all healthy.

We psychologists distinguish between “obsessive passion” and “harmonious passion.” The latter is the one we want. It fuels a fulfilling drive to dig into work. In contrast, obsessive passion happens when we can’t turn away. It’s a feeling that there’s always more we could be doing, a sense of guilt when we can’t figure things out right now.

When our passion for our work becomes obsessive, we’re more prone to burnout. For recruiters, how can we prevent the tilt toward obsession? One solution is to share the burden. Why? A characteristic of obsessive passion is difficulty turning off work. The person opens their laptop after hours or is distracted during leisure time because of work concerns.

To help these folks, we need technology that can do that after-hours work for them. There's a feeling of productivity knowing that work is getting done, but it’s the software that’s handling it. By providing recruiters with an assistant who manages stressful and repetitive tasks, that frees up space for more work-life balance — and eases the obsessive focus that is a risk factor for burnout.

Fighting burnout with gratitude.

There’s another advantage to getting this lift from HR technology. Psychologists have noted what’s known as the “broaden and build” phenomenon of emotions. It boils down to something simple: good vibes cause good behaviors. In more scientific terms, when one experiences positive emotions, one can mentally access a wide repertoire of positive behaviors.

An example is the positive feeling of “interest,” which then leads one to creatively seek out opportunities to explore and learn. This works in the opposite direction as well. Negative emotions tend to lead us down ever-narrower behavioral paths.

But what about burnout? Research has shown that gratitude acts like preventive medicine to treat burnout. Here’s how this works: It begins with that “broaden and build” process. Remember that positive emotions tend to lead one to choose positive behaviors. Gratitude leads to a desire to reciprocate. So, feeling gratitude at work makes you more likely to engage in your own interpersonal helping behaviors.

And when you’re doling out all those helping behaviors, you’re not disengaged, and you’re less likely to have a feeling of exhaustion — both key components of burnout.

When tasks and responsibilities are shared, and when colleagues help each other, that sets off a positive feedback loop that works against burnout.

When tasks and responsibilities are shared, and when colleagues help each other, that sets off a positive feedback loop that works against burnout. Creating a culture of collaboration, and ensuring that no one person’s job has grown into two jobs, can help. So too can choosing the right technology to pick up some of that load.

If a recruiter has software that can get candidates into the funnel, field their questions, screen them for eligibility, learn more about them, and schedule an interview, that’s like having a coworker lending a hand — and it can lead to a feeling of gratitude that starts a positive chain of events. That reduces the likelihood of burnout across the organization.

We can make a difference in the fight against burnout.

As a psychologist, I appreciate the negative impact burnout can have. But we’re not powerless against it. To really address recruiter burnout, organizations can enact systematic changes and introduce new software tools that have a high impact on workload.

Recruiters gotta recruit, but we should facilitate it to be a role that is fulfilling, not draining. The savviest companies select solutions that enable more time for the truly engaging work that attracts people to talent acquisition in the first place.

Written by
Dr. Heather Myers
Chief IO Psychologist
Dr. Heather Myers
Written by
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