How Sun International HR director realised the importance of self-care

In a recent CHRO SA webinar, Verna shared how the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted her.

In a recent CHRO SA webinar, Sun International HR director Verna Robson shared a story about how the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted her both personally and professionally, explaining how it became clear to her that self-care was one of the most important aspects of navigating an HR crisis. 

With hotels and casinos unable to operate at all during the lockdown period, Sun International’s senior leadership team had its fair share of challenges, not least which was that, in communicating their response to the pandemic, Verna’s personal mobile number was inadvertently shared with every employee.

Verna received hundreds of calls and WhatsApps in which employees would, for example, express their unhappiness around the decision to only pay 40 percent of salaries. A bold decision was taken by the entire industry to put people first, even though 80 percent of employees were not able to work from home because their skill sets can only be performed within the operations on-site.

Sun International employees did not take the decision well and did not understand that, in terms of the law, and the impossibility of performance due to the current Covid-19 lockdown, the industry was not obliged to pay them at all because of the ‘no work no pay’ principle. 

This was just one of the things that Verna had to address. She also had to field questions surrounding the company's donation to the Solidarity Fund. Staff were justifiably upset when they thought the Sun International was able to afford a donation to the fund while they were cutting wages by 60 percent. Verna had to explain that this is not the case because the donation came from the Valued Guest programme wherein guests donated used leftover spending credits that they were unable to use due to the lockdown.

Asking for help

Verna even started getting general queries around issues that occurred before the lockdown with one employee’s son contacting her saying his mother hadn’t received her long-service voucher yet.

“If you are in a situation where employees need to be communicated with constantly, you actually spend all your time on your phone. That's what I was doing continuously and it went on for days. Eventually, I realised that it was impacting my personality. I was becoming - for lack of a better word 'rude' in the way I was starting to engage with people,” said Verna, adding that she got to a point where she was tired of explaining and that was when she realised that she had to put on her own oxygen mask.

“Up to that point, I was involved in a lot of the wellness initiatives that we had put together for our employees but it’s quite a daunting task when you have to write an email to the wellness partners to say, ‘I need a debrief session. All these employee issues are weighing me down.’ Making that admission took quite a lot out of me. It felt like I was losing the battle because I was actually putting my hand up and saying ‘hang on a second, I need help.’”

The minute she sent that email, Verna already began feeling slightly better. The reply to her mail was equally comforting, with the wellness partner saying they were relieved that Verna was taking steps to attend to her wellbeing. The wellness partners had noticed the immense pressure she was under and reassured her about her decision to ask for help

"The mail said: ‘Through the years, you have had to implement tough decisions. It's time for a pit stop to recharge. That messaging alone, made me realise that, for the last three years, I've been on a non-stop rollercoaster," said Verna.

During the webinar, attendees responded to a poll on whether on not they had cared for themselves during the pandemic. Eighteen percent of the attendees said they always battle to take care of themselves in the face of work pressures, 28 percent said they were normally quite balanced but were battling to take care of themselves during the Covid-19 period, 39 percent said they were consciously taking better care of themselves during the pandemic. And 13 percent said they always made sure they put their own oxygen mask first before helping others.