CHROs highlight the importance of employee wellbeing in the workplace

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to companies shifting their focus to the wellbeing of their staff.

HR director sub-Saharan Africa at Mondelēz, Cebile Xulu, says the company does not treat wellbeing as an event, but something that allows people to have healthy connections with their leaders and colleagues.

“Our wellbeing programme is not a one-size-fits-all. Every single person can find something that is relevant for them. We consistently engage with our employees and we have activities every month,” said Cebile at a recent roundtable event on the importance of employee wellbeing in the workplace.

The company has recently been recognised as the top employer for Africa. “One of the reasons we are a top employer is we take a holistic view of employee wellbeing. What we’ve done is that we are consistent in our messaging. We make sure people have a healthy connection with their employers,” Cebile said.

She said it’s important for employees to be happy to be at work, an achievement she is proud of. “We are giving people the tools and knowledge to use.”

She shared that she struggled with mental health during the pandemic. “For the first time in 2020, I had extreme anxiety – not from work, but from what was happening during the pandemic. What was key for me, is I didn't have to explain myself to my leaders.

“I was given space to go through that and find the support I needed until I was okay. If I did not feel like waking up in the morning, I was not afraid that I was going to get fired.”

Cebile said it is also important to engage employees in order to create a healthy environment. “If employees are not engaged, leaders will continue prescribing what needs to happen. The top talent have options and they are the ones who are going to leave.”

She shared that she gets interesting questions of what’s going to happen if people do not want to go to the office. “We do expect them to come so we can connect. I have experienced leaders who put a status tracker at meetings. If a leader has time to track the team’s status, I would have a performance conversation with that person.The systems that have worked in the past are not broken. Focus on what people are delivering and not what their status is online.”

Companies, Cebile said, need to hold onto the gains that came out of the pandemic. “We need to look across the organisation and work towards making everybody’s life easy. The worst thing you can do is keep quiet in a toxic environment. Do not keep quiet!”

Sandra Botha, HR auditor at Top Employers Institute said more companies have defined what their wellbeing strategy is and what the objectives they want to achieve are. She said wellbeing was one of the key topics they measure as part of their certification programme, and look at it from a holistic point of view.

She said as much as there were many negatives during the pandemic, there were positive spin-offs too. “More companies have now defined their strategies,” she said. “Close to 90 percent of top employers have initiatives focusing on mental and emotional wellbeing. In the past it was taboo, but now it’s encouraged. We are seeing more companies having a better work-life balance, as there are more people working from home.”

The focus on wellbeing, Sandra said, was triggered by the pandemic. She said companies can ensure they provide necessary support to employees by involving employees to be part of the workplace design. “Two out of three top employers are asking employees what their likes and dislikes are. It’s all about asking employees’ for feedback,” Sandra said

It’s important to provide support to staff, she continued. “Companies need to be proactive. Organisations need to make sure they have procedures in place to create work-life balance.”

Post-pandemic, the role of the HR manager has been elevated to being available to employees, the speakers agreed. “Wellbeing is a holistic approach. It involves everybody. It will cost more to lose a critical skill, so we have to be mindful of the importance of wellbeing,” Sandra said.

Basetsana Magano, HR consultant and coach at Phetogo Consult, said employee wellbeing is critical and is a strategic element.

Before Covid-19, she pointed out, most companies wanted people to be in the office as a way of measuring performance. “The pandemic made them think differently – it’s not about the input, the number of hours, but about the output.”

She said employers need to be clear about the expectations they set and make sure there is a clear understanding on both sides.

The involvement of staff in the operations of the company is critical, Cebile said. “The days of leaders prescribing what needs to happen just because we have these positions are dead and gone. It’s what in my view creates the toxic culture we hear and read about. We see companies being dragged on social media because there is not much attention being paid to how leaders are involving anyone,” Cebile said.

If companies are to embrace the new world of work, they have to change the mindsets of employees in terms of how they would like to be led and what environment will enable them to thrive, Cebile said.

She said at Mondelēz they had not defined what return to the office should look like.

“We engaged with the team and people have asked the question [around the return to the office]. People are saying, ‘I’m here three times a week. What am I doing here that I wasn’t doing when I worked from home?’

“If employees are not engaged, I worry that leaders will continue to prescribe what needs to be done, and they will see talent voting with their feet,” said Cebile.