Leveling Up: Increasing HR Workloads Pose A Canada-Wide Challenge


According to CPHR Canada’s 2022 HR Trends survey, conducted by Leger, more than 90 per cent of HR professionals reported increased workloads over the past year. At 93 per cent, the number for B.C. and Yukon was only slightly higher than the national rate of 91 per cent. Yet only 38 per cent and 37 per cent of respondents, respectively, reported having gained resources to help handle the higher workload.

While the survey reported difficulty in recruiting as one of the major factors behind the increase, Makiko Deniz sees a wider picture. Director of people and culture at WELL Health Technologies, she noted that many factors in people’s lives affect their workload, whether in financial or other ways. “COVID, supply chain issues, the economy, wars — they all have effects on both employees and the business. HR has to support both. We deal with the people, but they have lives behind them.”


“When COVID hit, it was chaos. Nobody knew what was going to happen or what we had to do. HR had a key role to play working with employees to overcome those challenges,” Deniz said. WELL Health Technologies has more than 3,600 employees and service providers in Canada, the U.S., Europe, New Zealand and Australia, with its headquarters in Vancouver.

“We closed the office but still had to operate clinics to support patients; it was a priority to support that work. We had to think about how to support our staff and keep them safe in that situation. We learned how to set things up so doctors could see patients virtually, which meant identifying and obtaining systems and training the doctors, finding the resources needed.

“Even sourcing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was a challenge due to shortages. At the same time, we had to make sure those working from home had everything they needed to work there. We had to create safety guidelines for new situations, set a policy for COVID, and ensure policy supported team members so they could support their families, whether that was their children being out of school or sick family members.”

Communication was important, Deniz added. They hosted weekly all-hands meetings with the CEO, giving business and COVID-19-related updates, outlining what the company was doing to support employees and answering any questions. The meetings have now been reduced to bi-weekly. “People were very stressed, and it was a way to let team members know, ‘We have your back, we support you.’”

Increase in Both Volume and Complexity

Sandra Guarascio is a partner in the law firm Roper Greyell LLP, specializing in employment and labour law. She’s seen a marked increase in both the volume and complexity of employment matters crossing her desk. “The legal framework of rights and onerous legal obligations sit in HR, things like WorkSafe and increasingly complex accommodation issues.”

The pandemic, with its shifting protocols and standards, gave rise to “the highest stakes I’ve seen regarding concerns of the public and employees,” she said.

It’s also resulted in a huge shift in how work is organized for many workers, she added. “With a hybrid workforce, you need a whole new set of strategies. For example, how do you keep up morale when everyone is dispersed instead of in one location?

“There was a depleted capacity in the workplace and the community — people were running on empty. That caused more friction; people were less patient and less resilient. That’s a hangover from the pandemic. People have been working online, having less personal dealings — it’s a cumulative impact of burnout.”

Niche Employees Hard to Replace

Kanokwan (Nok) Limchareon, senior manager of HR at Standard Aero in Langley, is responsible for its 130 employees in B.C. as well as being part of the HR team for a worldwide employee base of 7,000. She said that challenges and additional workload caused by the pandemic were further complicated by changes in provincial and federal laws and difficulty finding experienced workers in a specialized industry as baby boomers retired, some of them earlier than expected because of the pandemic.

“It takes a long time for an employee to become seasoned, experienced in their jobs, in a niche like ours,” she said. “We take pride in training new apprentices. It’s all done under regulations, and it’s not easy or fast to groom a new person. During the pandemic, many people started wondering what was really important to them, and some switched careers. “It’s a combination of everything. We have to swim, fly and walk, do everything we can, like a duck, to shift gears as business or people need. It’s been quite exhausting for HR in the past year, and people were already tired from the pandemic. It wasn’t easy, with so much out of our control, putting protocols in place both behind the scenes and up front, working out rotations with departments that could work from home. Kudos to HR people; you don’t know when you get up in the morning what’s going to happen that day and you have to manage the situation in front of everyone else.”

The shortage of senior, experienced people is particularly noticeable in specialty areas such as health and safety, Guarascio added. “We have a number of clients wanting to hire for full-time positions, but they’re all fishing in the same pool. We’re seeing that even red-flagged candidates — those without effusive references — are becoming attractive. Now it’s often just ‘Can they do the job?’ and that impacts the whole organization.”

Recruitment a Challenge Overall

Across Canada and in our region, 59 per cent of HR respondents named difficulty recruiting as a major challenge. “Economics are harsher now with inflation, and people need jobs more than ever, yet it’s so difficult to recruit,” noted Guarascio.

The option for a hybrid working arrangement can be a major part of the decision making when a candidate is faced with multiple job offers, she added, but the “laptop class,” those who can do hybrid or remote work, is actually a small percentage of the total workforce.

For those who had no choice but to remain in their workplace during the pandemic, circumstances were extremely trying. “There’s been an uptake in mental health claims; they rose tremendously post-pandemic.”

Limchareon said people stay in their current jobs for three reasons: compensation, an environment where they feel valued and respected and feel good coming into work, and knowing they have the opportunity for career growth. Successful recruitment efforts must emphasize more than compensation. Flexibility is key for employees, she added, giving them the ability to work around family commitments, for example.

Giving employees the opportunity to add to their knowledge and skills is an attractive perk for potential employees. WELL Health Technologies is in the process of establishing an online WELL University. It will offer employees thousands of courses online. During the pilot of the program, Deniz said, employees had a stronger desire for opportunities of advancement and developing themselves than leadership had realized.

What Can HR Do?

While the most obvious response to increased workloads is to hire more staff, many businesses still recovering from pandemic losses aren’t in a position to increase payroll yet, even if they can find suitable candidates. Only slightly more than a third of the 2,000 respondents to the HR trends survey reported having the option of hiring more people.

“I think our role is to take ownership of it, not to wait for the employer to see what we need,” said Limchareon.

“If we have data to show that we need another person to work this many hours to finish a job, then we can have staff meetings, to share the pain points and figure out solutions together. Identify bottlenecks and risk areas, do some cross-training so employees from different areas can help each other temporarily. Larger organizations can get help remotely from other parts of the province or country.

“Our best allies are the leaders, to make sure we build a team strong enough to create an environment where people feel free to share ideas, feel accountable to the job and take ownership of it. HR is the key area to encourage those sharing, team environments. Then if we struggle, they are able to help us as well.”

Strategies When Hiring Isn’t an Option

Transparency is important, explaining to employees why in some cases the organization can’t hire, Deniz said. If additional staff isn’t an option, HR leaders need to analyze the workload and decide what are priorities, where to focus the available staff and what to put on hold until a time they can afford to hire more people. It may result in less focus on education and engagement, but it will keep people paid and the company in compliance with any legal or safety obligations, she added.

Once priorities are set, put them in your calendar to help you keep your focus on them, Limchareon said. “Set timelines and block out your calendar. I’ve learned to say ‘no’ a little more. For employees, accept that changes will impact them emotionally.” Setting timelines for their assigned tasks will also help reduce stress for them and management.

Practitioners agree that increasing the use of technology can make a huge difference for more routine or repetitive tasks, freeing HR staff up for more people-focused facets of their work.

At WELL Health Technologies, Deniz said, the wellness support program is now completely and confidentially accessible online, and coverage was expanded to team members’ immediate families, too, in recognition of changing demands on employees. An employee committee now organizes co-operative, fun social events to help build morale and bring employees back together after pandemic restrictions were eased.

Changing Work Strategies and Processes

Employers must acknowledge and try to mitigate higher workloads, or they’re creating a recipe for burnout, low morale and high turnover, according to Guarascio.

Some employers are changing how they do the work, by “more clearly delegating tasks to team members, giving them more autonomy.” For example, where there used to be two or three employees participating in a conference call with an outside firm, now there might be only one from the company.

“Some are involving line managers more directly in HR work, providing the managers with the tools and supports they need to take over some tasks, for example, an investigation into misconduct. Managers can also play a bigger role in performance management and evaluation processes.”

She said more HR departments are farming out work to contractors and consultants. “Sometimes they have the resources to hire, but are having trouble finding good candidates, so they have to outsource pieces of work, like respectful workplace training.”

Or they might recruit suitable candidates from within the organization — a good manager who understands the business can learn HR skills.

“We hire quite a number of interns,” WELL’s Deniz said. “They cost less and they want to learn. And we’re contributing to the future workforce, too — helping them get experience. There can be some funding from government sources for internships, too; it’s worth looking into.”

Looking After HR

Like others, Guarascio noted that HR practitioners need to give up the stress-inducing ideal of achieving perfection. “We need to trust our intangible judgement of what is good enough, or we spend too much time overworking things.

“Ask for help; don’t suffer in silence. Surface the reality. It helps build collegial support, and helps build your business case for more support,” Guarascio said.

“And we need to take care of each other in HR — we can’t ignore morale. Everyone needs to prioritize their individual self-care so they come in with the energy and outlook they need.”

Something that’s always worked for Limchareon is expressing appreciation to people.

“They’re not here for the money, they’re here for their value, to feel good about themselves. If they feel appreciated, morale is positive, and we are the ones who create the positivity in the workplace. I say thank you to people every day to make sure they know we appreciate what they do.”

Maintaining balance is critical, she added. “We need to look after the business and the team, know what’s critical and do meaningful work, but we also need to be sure to keep self-care intact. If we’re not mentally and physically healthy, we won’t be able to do all this.

“Take a break, make sure we do what we need to do. If we don’t do that, productivity will be jeopardized even more,” Limchareon said.

“Take care of yourself.”

Nancy Painter is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C. and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.

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