CHRO Day 2023 reveals that HR executives are human too!


Leading HR execs shared the personal challenges that changed the way they approach wellness.

“Trauma doesn’t tell you it’s coming, it just arrives,” were the words that resonated with every HR professional attending the “Human Too” breakaway session at the annual CHRO Day on 4 July.

In the session, industrial psychologist and transition coach Sylvia Baloyi discussed the impact of trauma on leaders. and how they also need support when they continue to lead the organisation, despite their own physical or psychological trauma.

Liberty CHRO Pumeza Bam was diagnosed with stage three cancer when she was 38-years-old. “I didn’t know whether I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry or fight it. It took me 24 hours to even tell anyone, because I needed to give myself space to come to terms with it and decide what I wanted to do about it.”

As the mom of a three-year-old at the time, she knew she had to fight. “In movies, people who have cancer become very thin, but it was the exact opposite in real life, because all the cortisone that was being pumped into my body made me swell like a balloon. So on top of everything, I also had these very ugly physical changes to deal with.”

Her challenges continue until today, however. “It’s been 10 years, and I’m still alive, but it has broken down my immune system so much that I had heart failure and three hip replacements.”

“I was wearing masks long before Covid-19,” she laughed.

Get better, together

Sylvia explained that, during any life experience, you need someone to help you go through it. “We see leaders and their success, but we don’t see the challenges that lie underneath the surface.”

Pumeza said the support she received from her organisation was critical to her recovery. “I was fortunate to be in an organisation that was very compassionate, and it allowed me to be transparent about the challenges that lay ahead for me.”

She added that, at no point did the organisation ask her to go on disability leave. “They asked what my treatment plan was and when I’d be able to work, and we worked around it – before hybrid working and flexi hours were a thing. I was able to work from my safe environment and didn’t have to expose my immune system by going into the office.”

Sanlam Corporate managing executive Nzwa Shoniwa, who lost both his mother and father within 12 months of each other, explained that he was also lucky to be in an organisation where he could openly talk about the challenges he was going through.

“In 2018, I got a big opportunity to head up distribution at Sanlam Corporate. At the same time, my mother was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and she was staying with me at the time, as I supported her through her chemo and radiation treatments.”

However, his mom passed away later that year. “Because my mom wasn’t able to take care of my dad, who was struggling with heart disease and diabetes, he started deteriorating and passed away 12 months later.”


A beacon of hope

Pumeza said that, despite this, she sees the experience as an opportunity to change the way organisations engage and support their employees. “Within Liberty, we have quite a dedicated psychological support system, because in the last three years, the whole world has gone through trauma, and no one has healed from it yet.”

She explained that, as hard as it is, you can’t live in the trauma, because it will consume you. “You have to find a way to live past the trauma. When I was going through all of this, I would arrange and pay for holidays so that I had something to work towards and something to be excited about. I planned birthday parties in advance so that I would stay optimistic about the year.”

“You need to create a beacon of hope, not wait for it.”

Some scary statistics

Since its inception, HealthImpact has assessed the wellness of hundreds of thousands of employees, but only 30,000 executives.

In fact, one of their clients reported five executive suicides last year, but they think the number is actually 20 because they don’t have the data for the underlying cause of death. “The tragedy we keep emphasising is that suicide is a very late manifestation of mental health distress,” said CEO Jedd Myer.

“Wellness encompasses physical, mental and spiritual health,” he said. “In order for CHROs to be agile in navigating life and business, they need to have a healthy balance across these three areas.”

He added that a healthy balance will help executives to be resilient and give them the ability to cope with the different stressors and trauma that come their way.

Jedd explained that HealthImpact has realised that, too often, corporate health and wellness is siloed into different segments in the business, including occupational, executive and employee health. But it has to be one overarching strategy. “You have to change your thinking,” he emphasised. 

What can companies do?

Asked what other organisations can do to offer the same support for their staff in this new world of work, Pumeza said: “We have to use the modern tools that are available to us to allow people to deal with their trauma and heal.”

She added that organisations should also not be continuing to measure a person’s performance in the same way as before they went through challenges. You have to take their situation into account and create a performance plan based on that, because no policy will ever be broad enough to cover everyone’s trauma.

“One of the big challenges that comes with cancer is that you don’t know when it will end. But the support I received from the company allowed me to focus on healing.”

Nzwa said that how people experience a company during their time of need will either result in them leaving the organisation because there isn’t enough support, or creates a stronger bond between the people and the organisation.

“No one can run from adversity. Instead, organisations need to create an environment where people feel comfortable bringing their pain to the office.”

He concluded that when employees spend less time trying to suppress and hide their hardship, they can actually focus on their job – because a big part of healing is going back to your routine.


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