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It’s time for a more empathetic and people-centred approach to people management

Written by Staff Writer

September 12, 2023

By Magdaleen Scott, Founder and Managing Director of KVD Communications

Globally, there has been a significant uptick in the prevalence of depression and anxiety post the COVID-19 pandemic. In South Africa, it is estimated that one in six people suffer from anxiety, depression, or substance abuse and more than half of the population is possibly dealing with some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study estimated that a third of people suffer from a mental illness and of that figure, 75% won’t receive any treatment. 

Disability claims appear to give credence to these figures: in 2020, 19% of disability claims were for mental health, up from 11% in 2019. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that there was a 25% increase in anxiety and depression disorders during the pandemic. 

It would be remiss of employers not to factor in mental health given a growing body of evidence indicating that poor mental health is associated with absenteeism, impacting worker performance and business profitability and success. 

Ironically, poor mental health also has strong associations with presenteeism, defined as employees coming to work despite suffering from illness, poor mental health, or another medical condition. The challenge with presenteeism is that employees tend to be less productive and more prone to making mistakes. Studies reveal that presenteeism is on the increase as a result of workplace culture, a fear of judgement from demanding employers, a lack of sick days, staff shortages, and job insecurity. 

What is becoming increasingly clear is that in an era of hybrid working, when it comes to human resources practices, a cookie-cutter, one size fits all approach no longer cuts when it comes to the management of people – if it ever did. 

Amidst growing work stress, the issue of work-life balance is front and centre. Globally, the great resignation trend has been driven by a desire to find a way to live a more fulfilling and rewarding life while meeting the demands of increasingly more demanding jobs. At the risk of incurring the wrath of some, I would suggest that achieving a work-life balance is a myth. Instead, what we need to be striving for is work that is meaningful and enriching and then commit to giving it our all.

The entries for the Standard Bank Top Women awards are open: 

Author of The Work-Life Balance Myth (2021), David McNeff agrees that the work-life balance is a myth, arguing that approaching work-life balance in binary terms is a zero-sum game. Instead, he suggests a seven-slice approach and to consider what percentage of time you spend on family; profession or career; personal; physical; intellectual; emotional; and spiritual. It could be argued that sleep should be added as an eighth slice. When you frame the issue as a seven – or eight–slice ordinal you have the ability to get more creative with how you utilise your time in a way that meets your unique needs.

In a similar vein, I also believe that quality of life is in the eye of the beholder. The point is that balance – like quality of life – is based on individual perception. Quality of life for a young, working parent may well be a night of uninterrupted sleep. For another, it might be a holiday with friends. For yet another, it might be the ability to read a book in peace.

In the same way that no two people will have the same definition of life balance or quality of life, one company’s HR policies and procedures, mentorship programme and training and development opportunities will make some employees feel valued and appreciated but will leave others stone cold.

In my business, we are addressing this with a more bespoke approach in terms of how we manage people. Each employee is assigned a mentor – a type of relationship director, for want of a better term – who is tasked with regularly checking in with their mentee both in terms of how they are coping in their work life as well as their personal lives. The industry we are in – communications – is a demanding one. 

We set high standards and employees are expected to deliver exceptional results. In the current economy, that’s not an easy task with the result that we know our people are under pressure. We encourage employees to take sick days when they are ill and spend time ensuring each team member’s well-being and mental health. We also encourage our employees to celebrate their wins, both big and small, personally and professionally. 

Our employees don’t work on their birthdays or on their children’s birthdays. It’s important that on those days, they are present with their family and we know this means more to employees than anything else. We give them the time needed to focus on what is important to them.

No employee is an empty book. Some join the business wounded from past experiences and need to be dealt with empathetically so that they can recover and bring their A-game to the workplace. Some come with skill gaps that we assume they should have at their level, but we now need to invest in upskilling them. 

Others struggle with hybrid work arrangements and can feel isolated if they are not sufficiently supported. We are not a big agency who believes in letting people go who are not performing, we invest in our people, as they are our biggest asset. We provide our staff with coping skills to ensure they are more resilient, we build them up, motivate and inspire them, upskill them and we help them to improve their time management skills, amongst other wellbeing initiatives.  

All you need is one person who believes in you and invests in you and I see great potential and exponential growth for all of my employees. My role as their leader is to find out what their professional passions are and then empower them to get there.

Ultimately, effective business leaders will be those who understand how to bring out the best in each employee, managing them, supporting them, motivating them, and encouraging them in a way that resonates most with that individual. 

I believe that everyone we meet crosses our path for a reason, I just hope to leave everyone I meet and mentor, better off than how I found them. This will be my legacy.

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