Mental wellbeing in sharp focus during this week's CHRO Community Conversation

HR leaders discussed what they were doing to take care of employees as well as themselves.

This week’s edition of CHRO SA Community Conversations saw HR leaders discussing wellness and mental health in particular. With already-existing cases of employers facing severe financial constraints to the point of struggling to pay employees’ salaries, South Africa’s working population are understandably feeling a little overwhelmed by the current level of uncertainty.  

Whether it is with regard to their health or job security, employees are anxious about the future. They are now also having to contend with working in this new working environment – their homes – which deliver a new variety of mental pressures and triggers as well. 

Sponsored by Workday, the discussion focused, firstly, on what executives were doing to take care of themselves and, secondly, what kinds of measures they were implementing in their organisations to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees. Dimension Data’s Michaela Voller opened the conversation, explaining that there had been concerns over how employees were coping emotionally due to the lockdown. 

“This drove us to start thinking about being more proactive about our approach to wellness, which is difficult to do because so much of the tools and systems that companies traditionally have in place are reactionary in nature,” said Michaela, who was eager to hear from her peers about the kinds of interventions they were putting in place.

Here are the five recurring themes that emerged from the conversation. 

1 Engage, engage, engage

HR leaders are doing all they can to focus on doing everything they can around employee engagement. Michaela said that, at Dimension Data, they had created a social networking app, which she described as a corporate enterprise version of Facebook, through which employees can interact and participate in various wellness activities.

Vodacom CHRO Matimba Mbungela said they were running pulse surveys, which go out to all employees and can be completed in less than five minutes.  

“We ask three or four simple questions… 'How are you feeling about the lockdown? What kinds of challenges are you dealing with? How can we improve your work-from-home experience?’…that kind of thing,” said Matimba. 

The pulse has been a resounding success, achieving a 57 percent response rate the first time it was sent out to employees and 80 percent the second time. In fact, it has led to Vodacom creating the ‘Take Your Chair Home’ campaign after a number of employees said the chairs they had at home were not comfortable nor conducive for sitting on for hours at a time. 

So, from next week onwards, employees will be able to fetch their chairs from the office and take them home. 

2 Exercise 

Another thing that executives were focussing on is exercise. EOH HR director Malisha Awunor said the company has started online group exercise sessions, which happens at 6 am and is led by one of the group executive team members. Malisha says she has also enlisted the ‘services’ of her daughter who is now her self-appointed personal trainer and ensures that Malisha is getting all the exercises she needs. 

“And she is very strict about time as well, so I’m definitely staying active.”

3 Self-care

Everyone agreed that self-care was paramount because, “If you are not taking care of your own mental health, it becomes difficult to worry about others,” said Altron HR director Dolores Mashishi.

“It’s also about giving yourself a break when work is not happening as efficiently as you would like. The fact is, people are unable to work right now and sometimes one has to be a bit more relaxed in their approach to matters of productivity. Take it easy on yourself and take it easy on others”

Workday business development director Kiveshen Moodley put it best: “Self-care is very important. It’s like when you fly on an airplane, and the flight attendant instructs you to ‘put your oxygen mask on first’ before helping others... Because, if you run out of oxygen yourself, you can't help anyone else. Let’s all make sure we have our oxygen masks on first.”

4 Offer support 

HR leaders are also doing everything they can to ensure employees have the support they need with companies offering access to a comprehensive range of preventative care and counselling services through ICAS. At Altron, they are also offering access to more coaching sessions for executives and employees than they ordinarily do. 

At Barloworld, mental health has already been an area of focus for a year now and, in addition to the ICAS services available to employees, they have psychologists on the premises to assist employees to deal with whatever mental challenges they may be facing. 

“Tomorrow, I am meeting with my wellness team to try to be more proactive about what we can do to ensure our people are taken care of as they return to work next week,” said Barloworld group human capital executive Tantaswa Fubu.

5 Diary management 

Lastly, the HR executives agreed that diary management had been the key to damaging their own wellness. With everyone working from home, it can be easy to forget to take a break and not feel guilty about stepping away from the laptop, but Stanlib HR executive Nuncy Green said it was important to set time in her diary to remind herself to take a break and allow her mind to recharge. 

“Sometimes you can have back to back meetings and, because you also want to get some work done, you end up not taking any breaks any work in between which can be extremely draining, especially when you still have to be with your children when you step away from that machine,” said Nuncy, who is so specific when scheduling her downtime that she writes down the activities she plans on doing with the kids and exactly how she plans to rest and relax. 

“This past long weekend made me realise that if you totally unplug and stop yourself from doing any work, you become far more productive when you get back.”

Michaela ended the session by saying she found it extremely helpful and comforting because it was nice to know that “I’m not alone and that we're doing all the right things. This platform gives one a semblance of comfort in a time of uncertainty.” 

She said that, just as scientists were getting together to create an agile approach to developing the vaccine for the virus, the HR community needed to continue sharing expertise and experiences in doing what is right, not just for the organisations they represent but also for society. 

Said Michaela: “I’m pretty sure that, during this conversation, there are some problems that I may have been able to solve for someone else and vice versa. This is not about competition, it's about being collaborative because the decisions we make today, will have a long-lasting legacy so we have to figure out how we can work with the government in order to minimise the long-term impact on society.”