As a talent manager in the oil and gas industry in Africa, I recruit across the Executive and C-suite levels in Sub-Saharan Africa – these include East, Central and West Africa, including Ghana and Nigeria. My constant interactions with senior executives in Oil & Gas, Mining and Energy have revealed that there is still a long way to go in fully realising the importance of mental health.

Globally, eyes and ears are opening up to employee wellbeing and this is leading to the acknowledgement of the fact that executives are succumbing more and more to stress and burnout. Yet, in Africa mental health is not at the top of the agenda for most companies.

A Job vs. a Career

In Africa, an employee can find himself on a 12-hour shift in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by strangers for months on end with no means to refresh and recuperate. So, what happens when he needs to wind down or blow off steam? We need to take care of our employees better so they can take care of the millions of dollars in equipment and assets we put in their care. A job might only last a few years, but a career lasts a lifetime. The aim should be to have a much more productive and healthy career through engagement and consultation on a regular basis.

More than a Pay Cheque

Africa has traditionally focused on getting the best person for the job, handing out a pay cheque, and expecting gratitude in response. It’s time to evolve our HR teams by appointing wellness and culture managers within the Human Resources function who specifically implement workplace-based initiatives that go beyond the 9 to 5.

Political and economic instability across some African countries means that HR is not at the point in which employee wellness is top of mind. South Africa is ahead of the rest of Africa in this sense, as global employee wellbeing programs are often piloted here first then rolled out continentally. It’s tougher in more traditional countries like Nigeria and Ghana where unemployment and job retention are more pressing needs over wellbeing and mental health.

Multinationals from abroad often lead by example: if an employee has burnout, he or she will be sent home and given access to career and health counselling. Local firms are still developing their attention to employee needs around the wellbeing issue. A maintenance engineer who has a panic attack will likely get fired as opposed to getting the help he/she needs simply because they are expendable.

The main issue with overlooking employee wellbeing is that the average age of senior management is dropping due to burnout before they reach the traditional pensionable age of 65. With unemployment in South Africa at 29% and rising, it’s not always possible to cross the table and get another job in another sector should one career not work out. As a result, employees must either stick it out or leave their jobs to seek a role in the same space once they have recovered.

Prevention vs. Cure

Taking responsibility for employee wellbeing means establishing innovative new line functions such as inclusion departments within the HR team. These would include specialists appointed to be exclusively dedicated to wellbeing focusing on team building, and one-on-one counselling. It’s risky to mix this with HR/recruitment or training departments, as its effectiveness may get diluted.

Employers can also adopt an open-door policy so that if an employee needs time away from the office, he/she can take a break or work remotely. Some innovative initiatives include moving people between departments to expose them to other parts of the business and also teach them the entire value chain which is mutually beneficial. Implementing these work-life balance incentives can save companies time, money and more importantly empty desks. Nobody leaves a company that cares for them and that makes them happy.

Today’s talent wants quick growth and a fulfilling career. Employers need to give them the tools to be the best they can be. Employees should know themselves and their strengths, to seek career guidance from the get-go, and to speak up when they are struggling. Taking care of ourselves is the best thing we can do. We live in a complex world, but the mantra is quite simple: Life first, career follows.

Don’t be shy: Please get in touch here if you would like to discuss any of the points I’ve touched upon in further detail. Alternatively, you can submit a job spec to us if your organization is looking to hire.

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Ashton Ngwenya

Ashton Ngwenya is a Business Manager at Page Executive, part of PageGroup, a FTSE 250 listed recruitment firm. With over 7 years of experience, Ashton recruits for senior roles for African and international businesses in Sub Sahara Africa from the Johannesburg office. 

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