Avanthi Maharaj says wellbeing is more important than killing yourself for work

Speaking at the CFO and CHRO South Africa Women’s Dinner, Avanthi said women need to take care of themselves too.

Your mental and physical wellbeing are not only vital to being able to do your job; you don’t need to be answering emails from a hospital bed. This quasi expectation, especially from women, needs to be stopped if we are to have a balanced life, according to Avanthi Maharaj.

Speaking at the annual CFO and CHRO South Africa Women’s dinner on 3 August, the Google South Africa’s chief human resources officer spoke from experience, as she had undergone major surgery last year, with severe complications, and worked through it.

“That’s what we are conditioned to do, rightly or wrongly; that’s how we have been living. We are expected to show up at any cost, because it’s our duty,” she said, emphasising that women must take time out when they need it. “Your company will be here long after you have left. Think of the people who will miss you. Think about the other titles you have, such as mother.”

After working during her surgery, Avanthi was put on forced leave by head office. She was not to deal with even one email, and systems were put in place so she didn’t feel the compulsion to work. While she felt that she was not needed, a symptom of being conditioned to be ‘always on’, which was heightened by working from home during the pandemic, she realised that the business had hired the best of the best and would function in her absence.

However, she had the leadership support to unburden and recover. “It’s never too late to realise you are important,” she said, adding that it’s important to be a mentor, and to lead by example and not overburden yourself.

What is important, Avanthi said, is to be able to bring your authentic self to the table to build future leaders and a culture that does not reward self-sacrifice. “You’ve worked through pushing out a baby. Amazing!” Too many women burn out as a badge of honour, she added.

While work and achievements are recognised, Avanthi’s biggest achievement was understanding she didn’t need to put her health at risk over her job. “My biggest acknowledgement, of recognition that I matter, took 46 years to understand.”

Help each other

Avanthi’s candid discussion also focused on the fact that women have sometimes held each other back, which is probably out of a fear of being overtaken in the workplace. “There needs to be a holistic culture of wellbeing, and to do this, we need to create opportunities for connection at both work and in our personal lives. We need a bit of soul.”

In addition, she said, culture and structure need to be looked at. It’s not acceptable to eat lunch at your desk; we need boundaries. Avanthi has carved time out in her diary to have this time away from her desk: “an hour to exist for myself”.

Women also need to feel financially secure to ensure their holistic wellbeing, she added. In addition, there needs to be a sense of community and mentorship should take factors such as career development, balance, and wellbeing into account.

“Be your authentic self as mothers, leaders, and daughters. Ensure you have the time and space to respect all these titles,” she said. As leaders, and mentors, we are grooming the next generation and the legacy we need to ensure we leave behind is to lift others as you lift yourself, in all areas of life, she concluded.