Sun International's Verna Robson on the importance of putting one's own oxygen mask on first

This week's CHRO Community Conversation focussed on the importance of self care.

In this week’s CHRO Community Conversation, Sun International HR director Verna Robson shared her personal and professional experiences around the impact of Covid-19 since the national lockdown was implemented 90 days ago. 

Sponsored by Workday, the CHRO Community Conversations have proven to be a great platform for HR leaders to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, blow off steam and compare notes on what it's like to be in charge of the people agenda of their organisations during such crazy times. 

The theme for this week was around the importance of putting your own oxygen mask on first and taking care of your own wellbeing in order to be able to show up for the entire organisation. As HR leaders who are in the frontline when it comes to putting out fires around Covid-19 and the impact on business, those in attendance all agreed that this was essential.

With Sun International unable to operate at all during that period, the senior leadership team at the hotel and gaming group has had its fair share of challenges, not least which was that, in communicating their response to the pandemic, every employee was inadvertently given direct access to Verna via her personal mobile number. 

Verna told the awe-inspiring story of the overwhelming amount of queries and complaints that she had to deal with. She described the context in which the company sought to lead the conversation about Sun International’s response to the virus. 

With HR leading the charge, Verna’s role, among many others, was to assist with internal and external communications and in asking for feedback from stakeholders. She became the voice of the organisation. In that role of assisting with communications, she was tasked with writing to the union stakeholders about their change model, which involved a number of significant changes to the way they would be operating in the new climate, including, for example, changes to working hours.

“In our attempt to be open and frank with our partners, I wrote a letter to key stakeholders and my number, along with the chief executive’s mobile number was in the letter. We never got a call from the union but the unions shared the letter as well as our contact details on all the WhatsApp platforms that they have, presumably unaware that the letter was not meant to be distributed so widely,” said Verna, adding that the union represents about 65 percent of the 9,000 or so employees employed by the company 

“The people that saw this took it as an open invitation to engage with the organisation via myself as the HR director. Even though our CE’s number was there, I guess they assumed he would be too busy to field those calls.”

Flooded with calls and messages

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 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 as a large category of employees are employed as dealers, slots technicians, waiters, bartenders and so forth), everybody would be paid 40 percent of their salary from April onwards.

“However, because wages are regulated by sectoral determinations, the wages that our lower-earning employers receive were not significant to begin with, so there were a lot of complaints. People would call me saying, ‘how are we supposed to survive with this?’” said Verna.

“Our employees saw the decision as a salary cut, not understanding 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. We are now 89 days into the lockdown and the casino and hospitality businesses are still only hoping to open on 1 July.” 

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. “They were justifiably upset when they thought the Sun International was able to afford a donation while we were cutting wages by 60 percent.” But Verna would have to explain that this is not the case because the donation came from the Valued Guest programme which is money paid by guests who had spending credits that they were unable to use due to the lockdown.”

Said Verna: "We realised that employees don't understand the business model. At times I would spend an hour with an employee explaining the mechanics of every situation to them so that they could understand the context of the coronavirus, the regulatory environment in which the business operates and the overall impact on the business of not being able to generate any revenue for three months.” 

Furthermore, 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.

Exercising self care

After a while, it was becoming overwhelming and Verna sent an email to the wellness partners explaining that the raft of complaints and queries was weighing her down.

“It was the first time the statement of putting on your own mask first, really rang true for me. I had to go through this experience to realise that, in order to show up for the rest of the employees, I had to take care of myself.”

The wellness partner responded to Verna’s message saying, “I’m so glad you are checking in to attend to your wellbeing. You have been through years of having to implement tough decisions. It’s time for a pit stop to offload and recharge.”  It was a message that Verna found reassuring and humbling because it had not dawned upon her that, while the wellness partners were serving the company’s employees, they were keeping a close eye on the company’s leadership. 

Verna moved into the stage of taking care of herself, starting with setting healthy limits on any media consumption. In fact, every Saturday is now a media-free day in which she does no work and does not access her laptop, only checking her mobile phone or emergencies.

"I work until late on a Friday evening to ensure that all my outstanding items for the week are completed. Other than that, I don't switch my laptop on until Sunday evening," said Verna.

Another thing she has started doing is changing her morning routine by journalling instead of going straight to her emails or mobile phone.

Said Verna: “It's a process about writing down whatever comes to my head at that moment. I found that a morning habit sets the tone for the rest of the day. When you log on the first thing in morning, you can be overwhelmed by the raft of emails that require a response and the tasks that need to be done, and you end up only eating breakfast until midday, which is not good for your state of mind"

Lastly, Verna also uses an app that reminds her to do six minutes of exercise every day, which has been extremely helpful for someone who, she says, doesn't enjoy exercise at all.