Leading CHROs deliver insights for Mental Health Awareness Month


Workplace mental health is in the spotlight. Find out what CHROs are doing about it.

October is World Mental Health Awareness Month; the aim is to educate the public about mental health and reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illnesses are often subjected to.

Dévora Kestel, director for mental health and substance use, at the World Health Organization said that changing working environments undoubtedly brings opportunities for professional development, expanding networks and innovation.

However, the extent and pace of change can, when coupled with a working environment that doesn’t take account of people’s mental well-being, lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of alcohol or other substances, absenteeism and lost productivity.

“Indeed, the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, is estimated to cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year.

“Many factors influence the mental health of employees. Organisational issues include poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision-making, long or inflexible working hours and lack of team cohesion.”

She noted that fortunately, there is a growing recognition that the mental well-being of employees has a positive impact on organisational success as well as on employee health, professional fulfilment and quality of life.

Understandably, the topic of mental health both in and out of the workplace has come up a lot in the past 19 months, in CHRO Community Conversations. Leading CHROs have added their voice to the call for more humane workplaces, and detailed steps that they have taken in their companies to educate and provide a more supportive workplace for all.

Gcobisa Ntshona, HR director at LexisNexis, said her organisation noted from employee surveys and informal discussions that there was a growing sense of fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed, and reduced mental wellness in pockets of the organisation.

“While some of this is understandable, given the jarring year many of us have experienced, our executive team takes these indicators seriously and set out to provide additional support to our workforce to ensure the optimal mental and physical wellbeing of our people,” she explains.

They introduced a LexisNexis Wellness Week, which allowed for the flexibility of having few to no meetings, to start the day very late and do it at your own pace.

“For one full week in May, employees were given the opportunity to recharge, rethink and realign, so that they were all revitalised and ready to forge ahead. Everybody was encouraged to take it slow all at once.

“We ended the week with a burnout and stress workshop. “We wanted our employees to be able to identify the signs and be able to manage stress and burnout.”

Market HR cluster head at Google Avanthi Maharaj said, “I wish I could say we have it pegged down in terms of getting the balance right but it's a learning journey and we are trying to see what works for individuals. Yes, there is a company approach and ethos that we are very conscious of, and has led us to implement global reset days off from last year, a no meetings weeks, focus days and a few other creative options as the health, safety and well-being of our entire Google community remains our top priority guiding all these efforts.”

Tiger Brand’s CHRO S’ne Magagula said the FMCG company is still learning and trying to find the balance in getting things right, “We are also still figuring it out, our people are not homogenous. We have people in the office environments and people at the plants but certainly, their health, safety and wellbeing are our number-one priority. Everyone has access to support; we have a wellbeing programme called THRIVE available to everyone across the organisation and their families. And it’s not just about wellbeing in terms of the traditional physical and emotional wellbeing but about proactively helping people manage their mental health and that of their families.”

Ncumisa Mtshali, the head of HR at Bryte SA also concurred, saying, “We are all on a journey, you can never say you have arrived at your destination. Wellbeing is a very key focus this year for us with focus on mental, social and emotional wellbeing due to the pandemic. We have always focused on physical wellbeing. We have a WhatsApp group where we do exercises, we have personal trainers and a gym at the workplace. We have had to ask ourselves how we add other elements to create a holistic wellbeing programme that speaks to individuals because we have different needs from a wellbeing perspective.

Group executive: human capital, internal audit and corporate affairs at Barloworld, Tantaswa Fubu commended her boss, Barloworld’s CEO Dominic Sewela, “Who has been a beacon of light in what has been one of the darkest periods of my life.

“He has had to deal with my mental illness (I suffer from depression) as well as me testing positive for Covid-19. I have never come across a better example of empathetic leadership. Indeed, the pandemic is teaching us as leaders how to be humane. We are being taught to listen and respond to the silent cries of our people.

Tantaswa concluded that the questions leaders have to ask themselves in a post-pandemic world are: “How do we ensure that our people do not feel “less than” because they cannot attend all the meetings on any given day? What does leading in a humane manner mean, and how does it manifest?”.

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