Beverly Kirstein shares the key to cultivating empathy and wellness in the workplace


CHRO at SACO CFR Beverly Kirstein prioritises fostering a culture of empathy and flexibility in the workplace.

Managing the interests of 500 employees across the country, CHRO at SACO CFR Beverly Kirstein is currently immersed in implementing employee and leadership programmes within the organisation – a task for which her strong career trajectory has prepared her well.

Her career began in the freight forwarding and clearing industry, where she first cut her teeth as a receptionist before moving upward through the ranks over the next decade.

Her foray into HR began when a position in the HR department became available. It was a no-brainer, she says: “It had been on my bucket list. I am naturally drawn to people and guiding and advising them. The human element really enticed me,” she explains.

It was a daunting new journey, but she was up to the task, and the company sent her on an array of courses to bolster her experience. “That’s where the majority of my training and exposure came from,” she says. “I also had a fantastic team at the time who were also guiding me. After two years, I had made a positive impact within the department and they asked me to take on the HR director role.”

She duly took the opportunity and served on the board of directors for five years. She was, however, thrown by the pandemic and the retrenchments that came with it. Her health also took strain amid the pressure: “I wanted to keep my peace of mind and health intact,” she says. This led her to start her own HR consultancy, which she did successfully until consulting for SACO CFR resulted in an offer for the CHRO position.

She says their emphasis on employee wellness was partly what made her take the leap: “It is a top pillar of their strategy, which speaks huge volumes to me and is where my passion lies,” she says. She has been in the role for 18 months and also sits on the exco.

In this role, she spearheaded an employee wellness programme. Highly aware of the effects of the pandemic on mental health, she finds that people are grappling with unfamiliar challenges and battling to cope – all of life’s other pressures notwithstanding. “It’s also loadshedding, fuel price increases, food price increases and companies not being able to maintain the cost of living expenses accordingly because they are also trying to get back on their feet,” she says.

The programme requires employees to register on an app that highlights activities ranging from sessions with guest speakers discussing mental health and financial management to 5km walks and meditation sessions. The more sessions employees attend, the more points they get. Those with the highest points at the end of the year will be rewarded with prizes like holidays, dinner with loved ones or a wellness pack.

This is to incentivise employees to look after themselves and is communicated through a variety of modes, including strategically placed work stations for deskless workers (in a largely industrious company) to have access to computers and internet – so that they can participate as meaningfully as their office-based counterparts. “The pilot programme is about testing how well it does and developing it further,” she explains.

“I don’t believe mental health has ever been as important as it is now. Covid challenged people on every level. So we had to start to think and feel differently,” she says. This is why employee wellness is so important to her: “I don’t believe that we would be able to make inroads as easily in industry or business, if we don’t look after that first,” she says.

She also believes that flexible working hours and remote working need to become a priority, “We need to be delving into ways in which this could work for business,” she says.

Beverly is also focused on internal recruitment and upskilling staff, including driving a leadership and development initiative for managers, supervisors and would-be leaders, “It exposes them to different modules of leadership and we have developed course material to teach,” she says. As an avid learner herself, she plans to pursue further studies in HR and a coaching course to supplement her sound knowledge and understanding of her role.

She believes that her time as a receptionist was invaluable. “Receptionists are like the counsellors of a company because everyone talks to you. So you know everything,” she jokes. “It was such a great starting point, because you speak to people every day and actually hear what their challenges are,” she says.

“Listening is a tool that many people don’t have the natural ability for. Many people listen to answer and not to understand. So that position taught me a great deal and people felt comfortable to speak to me,” she adds.

She also thinks being transferred to different positions and being exposed to the actual operations of the business and the freight industry served her well, “I can completely relate to and understand what my operations team is dealing with on a day-to-day basis because I’ve actually been there. My advice comes from a place of knowing and real experience, and they really value that,” she says.

It has also helped open channels of discussion and added dynamism to her approach, while her experience as an executive assistant gave her view of what directors deal with every day and an understanding of their stressors and concerns.

Beverly also prioritises downtime, “It’s very important to look after yourself. If you are not looking after yourself or mentally strong or fit and healthy, you’re not going to be able to give what you need to the people who need you,” she says. As such, she schedules regular “me-time” and enjoys going for a massage or facial, spending time with family and friends, exercising or binge-watching a series. She is also particularly talented at flower-arranging – a muscle she has flexed for several of her friends’ birthdays and functions.


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