Tired woman at desk hero

Beat Burnout by Investing in HR Technology and Automation

A recent Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) study on HR Capability and Design asked this question of senior-ranking HR leaders representing 122 large organizations (those with more than 1,000 employees): "What are the most significant barriers to your HR function’s ability to deliver on the organization’s strategic imperatives/objectives?"

The top response (60%) was overload or burnout of employees in the HR function.

That is not entirely surprising, and aligns with one of the four priorities members of i4cp's Chief Human Resource Officers Board cited in 2022 Priorities and Predictions: C-Suite Perspectives from i4cp's Boards: "With all that’s fallen on the shoulders of the CHRO and the HR function, the threat and incidence of burnout is very real."

There are many ways to lessen burnout, including ensuring that employees use all available time off (or offering more), boosting mental health offerings, providing education on relaxation techniques, and more. But these treat the symptom of burnout; they do not attempt to determine and then resolve the root causes of burnout.

Interestingly, the second most commonly cited (56%) barrier to HR’s ability to deliver on the organization’s strategic imperatives/objectives also happens to be a root cause of burnout: outdated or insufficient HR systems/technology.

Chart, bar chartDescription automatically generated

Burnout and the need for improved technology

Another 2022 priority among members of i4cp's CHRO Board is greater adoption of digital technology. Doing so has many benefits, including lessening the tactical nature of HR’s traditional role, driving greater efficiencies, and freeing HR to concentrate on issues that deliver strategic impact to the business. On this last point, the structure and capability study confirmed a significant gap between the importance placed on the ability to use technology to increase HR’s strategic contribution to the business (53%) and its currently perceived level of effectiveness—just 26% of survey respondents said that their HR functions are effective at this.

Going beyond its importance for achieving strategic contributions, the strong relationship between antiquated or insufficient HR technology and HR burnout was confirmed by the HR Capability and Design survey data and cannot be overemphasized. In fact, analysis revealed that outdated HR technology is predictive of HR burnout: those who indicated that their organizations’ HR systems are out of date were nearly 7x more likely to cite burnout as a barrier to HR’s effectiveness, regardless of whether or not budget was also cited as an issue. Put simply: inadequate, outdated technology and burnt out, under-performing employees go hand-in-hand

There are several ways that HR systems and technologies can be out of date. Leveraging the latest features from the latest versions of your Human Resources Management System (HRMS), Applicant Tracking System (ATS), Learning Management System (LMS), and more is an obvious first step to consider. Many of these features have been upgraded in recent years as part of the broader workplace focus on employee experience, and this of course includes HR employees and their need for better user interfaces, analytic capabilities, and more to get their work done and improve productivity and efficiency.

Enhancements to technology that enable greater self-service by either business leaders, or in some cases all employees, can also greatly reduce the transactional nature of the day-to-day work of HR professionals. But HR self-service is one part of the broader trend of HR automation, which once implemented can greatly help reduce burnout in HR professionals.

The breadth of HR automation continues to expand

In 2019, i4cp conducted a study on the growing use in organizations of artificial intelligence (AI), automation, machine learning, etc.—collectively referred to as advanced work automation. In the report Automating Work: The Human/AI Intersection, we noted that 3x as many participants from high-performance organizations (45%) indicated to a high or very extent that they were improving employee experience by applying advanced work automation versus low performers (15%). Many organizations often also find hidden value in their employees—value that simply needed the right technology, or more time afforded via automation, to be unleashed.

Advanced work automation is not magic dust that, once sprinkled, will necessarily improve employee experience, or reduce burnout. HR automation will not fix poor HR procedures or policies. So before bringing in any new technology, it is critical to first re-evaluate the process, procedure, or policy being digitized or automated.

That said, the opportunities for HR automation—and hence the potential decrease in HR employees' burnout levels—are enormous. In short, HR leaders will reap benefits by having humans do what only humans can do and automating the rest.

Many organizations long ago automated, to varying degrees, their payroll systems, tax documentation, travel and expense management, and overall records management systems. If your organization is a laggard in any of these areas, those would be cost-effective items to consider first since the available solutions are the most mature.

As noted in Automating Work: The Human/AI Intersection, talent acquisition continues to be a leading HR functional area when it comes to implementing automation. Given the current labor market, recruiters and other TA professional are under more stress and pressure than ever. In fact, a recent LinkedIn News item reported that one of the most common roles that recruiters are recruiting for is other recruiters. Consider the following ways in which the talent acquisition process can be automated:

  • Handling standard TA workflow tasks, e.g., job posting approval and posting, sending candidate emails, scheduling interviews and sending calendar invites, generating offer letters, etc.
  • Using chatbots to assist applicants on the career portal
  • Augmenting online interviews, e.g., assessing word choices, facial expressions, personality, etc.
  • Screening candidates based on data that identifies the qualities of a successful hire (predictive hiring)
  • Eliminating unconscious bias in areas such as race, gender, age, nationality, etc.
  • Building job requisitions for hiring managers
  • Creating personas for niche/hard to fill roles
  • Providing coaching for hiring managers (e.g., real-time tips, reminders, etc.)

Other functional areas can also benefit from automation in various ways and to varied degrees, from onboarding, to learning and development, to performance management, and more.
Consider the following partial list:

  • Handling HR forms during onboarding, e.g., payroll setup, benefits enrollment, scheduling training, etc.
  • Directing IT setup during onboarding, e.g., issuing equipment and software licenses
  • Dealing with time-related employee information and requests (e.g., timesheet tracking, leave and PTO requests, PT/contract worker time tracking, vacation balance requests, etc.)
  • Handling flexible work requests (e.g., remote work requests, time, or shift change requests, etc.)
  • Simplifying HR forms for offboarding and exit interviews
  • Managing some aspects of benefit (e.g., eligibility, education, enrollment, modification, etc.)
  • Enabling more people network formation (establishing relationships) during onboarding
  • Matching internal candidates / skills with openings in the organization
  • Providing learning content / course recommendations
  • Using chatbots as a performance support solution
  • Providing AI-driven tutoring as a personalized / adaptive learning solution
  • Gathering performance management information and guiding managers and employees through the process steps (e.g., tracking progress against goals in real-time, automating alerts for low performance, recommending action plans predefined by managers, etc.)
  • Providing coaching recommendations based on performance review inputs (whether annual or more frequent)
  • Performing sentiment analysis for employee surveys, assessments, social scraping, etc.
  • Using chatbots for HR self-service (e.g., requesting time off, looking up basic info, sending reminders, etc.)
  • Leveraging predictive analytics for talent risk analysis
  • Providing coaching to managers on appropriate incentives and pay levels

While such technology-driven improvements provide clear benefits, including the reduction of burnout for HR professionals, be careful to consider whether the new solution will increase or decrease the potential for bias in the underlying process.

To help member organizations through such challenges, i4cp has created a series of Bias Audit Checklists, spanning a great many HR functional areas such as talent acquisition, learning and development, performance management, and more. An additional bias audit checklist is also provided on the use of AI and Algorithms in the workplace.

Tom Stone is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp

Thomas Stone
Tom is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, with over two decades of experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker in the learning and development and broader human capital industry. He is also author of multiple books, including co-authoring Interact and Engage! 75+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition from ATD Press, 2022).