Barloworld's Tantaswa Fubu talks about her journey with depression

Tantaswa's experiences led to her becoming the poster girl for mental wellness within the organisation

Tantaswa Fubu, group executive for human capital and transformation at Barloworld had her first bout of depression while completing a gruelling B.Com accounting conversion course at the University of Cape Town.

She had completed was a B.Admin (Hons) degree majoring in Industrial Psychology and Public Administration and two years later decided to become a Chartered Accountant. UCT’s conversion course was a one-year course that converted any degree you have from any South African university into a B.Com Accounting degree.

“We started around the fifth of January and, by the time the normal students joined the university at the beginning of February, we were done with first-year accounting modules and were halfway through Accounting 2. By the time the third-year accounting students started their curriculum, we started with them. It was hectic,” she says.

Tantaswa would start classes on campus at 8am and stay until late at night because she would have to go to the library and digest all the information she had learned, often leaving the campus at 11pm after studying. She would then wake up at 4am to go to the gym.

“It was in that year, around June 1996, that I had my first encounter with depression. I was a young mother and a young wife while doing a three-year degree in 12 months.”

She had to be medically treated for depression and was put on antidepressants. Nevertheless, she completed the programme. However, the following year, she failed her honours.

“It was weird because in the previous year, I did 13 courses and passed all of them and the following year, I did four courses and failed all of them. That sent me into another bout of depression, which lasted a very long time.”

Depression hit Tantaswa hard because, before then, she had never failed at anything. She decided to leave UCT to get away from the environment that reminded her of her failure, and she enrolled in a Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

"I was not mature enough at the time to recognise that failing did not make me a failure. I remember crying every time the following year when I opened the textbooks because it was a constant reminder that I had failed."

Becoming a confidante

Tantaswa passed her honours at UKZN, went to do her articles at KPMG, and completed both her board exams in one attempt, all the while being rated as being among the top performers among her peers at the company.

She later had a short stint with Standard Bank and, in 2002, became a manager at Nkonki, where she was made a partner a year later. She stayed there until 2006, where she left as the head of External Audit.

Throughout her career, Tantaswa has often been a confidante to her colleagues. People somehow gravitated towards her and felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable and share their innermost vulnerabilities with her, regardless of whether they were work-related or not. Her penchant for mentoring and coaching began to develop without her even noticing it was happening.

She returned to KPMG six years after leaving and joined as a partner in their technical accounting division (Department of Professional Practice – DPP).

Says Tantaswa: “I had barely been there a month when people started streaming into my office to share their problems. Some would tell me that they were not treated fairly, while others were anxious about their careers, saying they didn't feel they were going to be able to make partner. Interestingly, even some of the partners would send their top performers to me for coaching in order to prepare them to be ready for the partner role. Even though that was never really a role I had been given by the organisation, I would get asked to help get so-and-so over the line.”

Asked what it was about her that gave people this inclination to trust her, Tanstaswa says “if I could tell, I would probably be very wealthy right now because I'd bottle it and sell it. But, honestly, I don't know what people see.”

Like a fish to water

Tantaswa's humility and magnetism did not go unnoticed. Eventually, the now-former KPMG CEO and senior partner Moses Kgosana asked her to lead the HR function.

“And that's how I became an HR leader. I asked him why me specifically and he told me that some partners in the people space had gone to him and asked that I be their executive partner.”

Tantaswa laughs about how Ntate Kgosana, as she calls him, gave her a month, not to think about it, but to figure out what she was going to do when she started in her new role.

But she took to it like a fish to water. As someone that had been a client of the people function, Tantaswa says she knew where to start and came up with a skeleton of a strategy.

She identified people who she believed were influencers in the HR space and shared her ideas. They loved them and, before she knew it, the strategy had legs and had been sold to senior people within the organisation.

“Literally, all I had were a few ideas written on a page. But, by the time those team members came back to me, it was a fully-fledged HR strategy and that was ready to be implemented. That experience really influenced my leadership style because it taught me that, all one needs to do as a leader is give people a vision that excites them, and thereafter allow them to bring it to life,” says Tantaswa.

Among the many changes to HR policy at KPMG was the rule that if a bursar failed their CTA (Honours) year, they would not be sponsored again. Because she also had failed that year and understood that there were sometimes real issues that real people have to deal with, she decided to give people a second chance. The rationale was, had she never been given a second chance to repeat her Honours year, she never would have made it as a CA.

“I motivated the change by sharing my experience and saying ‘can you imagine how many Tantaswa have been lost already and how many more we will continue to lose if we don't fix this,” she says. She also put a stop to the firm sponsoring the children of partners as she believed they could afford to pay university fees, and that the money could be used more effectively by students in real need. During her time in this role, she grew the bursary fund significantly, trying to ensure that the firm puts as many disadvantaged children through university as possible.

Becoming the poster girl for mental wellness

Fast forward to 2019, where depression reared its head again. By then Tantaswa had been in her current role for close on two years and, looking back on it now, she says she should have seen it coming because she knew the signs from her previous bouts.

“But I kept postponing getting help. There was no time for me to be getting sick. It was a big year for me because, on top of the HC projects I was leading, I was delivering a R3.5 billion BEE transaction for the group,” she says.

“But when you do not make time to address this sickness, there will always come a point where your body gives in.”

Tantswa says she was giving from a point of nothingness when one day she went into a meeting with the group CEO “and all he did was ask me how I am and seconds later I was breaking down in tears.”

“He organised for one of our drivers to drive me home and then to take me to the doctor. I was booked off for three weeks, with no questions about how that would impact my leave or when I would be ready to provide input on this or that project. All my boss kept saying was that I must get the help I need and get well before I think of coming back to work.”

Up to that point, Tantaswa had already begun working on a business case around a group wellness strategy with a specific focus on mental health issues. She was quite clear of the need to create an environment conducive to people feeling safe about being sick. It was a scenario in which employees would be able to self-diagnose and seek treatment for mental health problems because they have been empowered with the relevant knowledge, are in a safe space to express through whatever workplace channels that they need help, and for the workplace to be able to facilitate that assistance in a humane manner. She wanted to create an environment where people would always be treated with dignity and respect.

Tantaswa's experience gave Barloworld (and her, as the executive responsible for wellness) a case study on how to handle mental health and allowed the company to put a face on the issue of depression.

“I also made the conscious decision to actively champion mental health in the business because I was really caught unawares by the whole experience of dealing with it in a work environment,” says Tantaswa, adding that her team started engaging with clinical psychologists and specialists to help them understand what the organisation was really dealing with and, “for me, it was a very personal journey.”

Emotional impact workshops

That work really prepared Barloworld for the wellness side of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether it is with regard to their health or job security, employees are anxious about the future. They are now also contending with working in this new working environment – their homes, which come with their own variety of mental pressures and triggers as well.

But, because of Tantaswa's experience, Barloworld has been more proactive about mental wellness.

“Since my experience, we’ve introduced wellness workshops where employees talk about what stress, depression and anxiety are and how the symptoms manifest. Not only that, we continuously engage with employees on how best to approach what is still a very sensitive subject.”

Tantaswa says she has recently been involved in running emotional impact workshops with the help of psychologists whereby people have been able to come in groups of not more than 15 and share their experiences, anxieties, anger, disappointments during the pandemic. She decided to introduce the workshops because of everything employees have gone through during lockdown, including retrenchments.

Says Tantaswa: “The workshops have been so well received and our people indicated that they needed to debrief. The participants were mixed and us a group exco could hear first hand how people felt and also our people could hear how we were also impacted by the decisions we took. We are on this healing journey because I do not want to be reactive, deal with people when they are already on the depressing side. We are trying to keep people on the healthy side, deliberately and proactively.”

To prove how important mental wellness is to an organisation, Tantaswa shares the story of a young woman in the finance division who was on the verge of being labelled as a non-performer until Tantaswa posed the question, “has she always been a non-performer and, if so, why have we kept her for so long?” The answer was ‘no’ and eventually, it was uncovered that she had been struggling with depression.

In another instance, one of the divisional executives recently lost their mother and, because Barloword is in tune with the story of an African woman in this situation, who needs to home and cook for people coming to pay their respect and plan the funeral, all the while managing her own grief, Tantaswa undertook to ensure that food was delivered to her home daily so that she didn't have to deal with that aspect of the grieving process. She also made sure it helped her will all the logistics around planning the funeral. And days before the funeral, Tantaswa sent a massage therapist to her home for a much-needed massage.

It’s not just about depression

Barloworld still subscribes to services like ICAS and had wellness days but those activities were quite disjointed before. Since Tantaswa's experience, the company has taken an approach that embraces the spirit as opposed to the letter of wellness policies.

Says Tantaswa: “Now when we give someone time off, we bring in a temp so that the person who is supposed to be healing is not sabotaged by the thought of work piling up while they are away. We also found instances of substance abuse and, whereas before those people would be fired, we now bring psychologists in to help them. I'm telling you, it's been such a revelation that I even get spouses coming to see me to say ‘thank you’."

Barloworld is now at a place where the leaders are thinking about the person and how they are being impacted and taking steps to ease their burden. That’s how they approach mental wellness. And, for Tantaswa, it’s not only simply about depression. It’s about de-stigmatising vulnerability and allowing people to find their voices.

And it's working because now people are reporting things that could lead them to be depressed. They are talking about the issues in their families and work environments that could trigger that spiral. It has created awareness throughout the business and, partly due to Tantaswa's experience, there has hardly been any push back from the executive leadership team.

“I think that when you go the extra mile to care for people in this manner, you inadvertently create policies and practices that can be abused but I strongly believe it is better to rather create consequence management for people who abuse the system than to not have these kinds of measures in place.”