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How empathy can help re-write rules for workplace wellbeing

For many, getting an MBA is about career progression. For Girly Letsipa, it was about so much more. She wanted to do something positive to protect vulnerable workers across South Africa. Based on her own tragedy, this was a private mission for public good.

Keeping people healthy and safe while they are at work is a business priority and one that over the past two years - as the COVID-19 pandemic raged - has gained greater prominence. But for Girly Letsipa it has been a lifetime concern. Ever since her father, an open cast mine worker, lost his life at work when she was a child, she has been on a mission to rewrite the rulebook on health and safety and prevent this happening to someone else’s father.

Fast forward a decade or so and, armed with an international MBA from Henley Business School, Girly is the Head of Health and Safety at Lafarge South Africa, a major construction material business solutions provider. One of her proudest achievements is the five-year fatality-free record over the course of her tenure. This includes the turbulent two years through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. She’s proud to say not one person passed away from the virus at Lafarge.

“This was in stark contrast to the industry standard,” Girly says, “where many employees in other businesses lost their lives.”

Always entrepreneurial, Girly started and ran a water treatment chemical company for five years before deciding she would need to gain a broader skill set to achieve her ambitions. Her business had grown exponentially, and it was a shining example of a black woman-led enterprise that was doing good in South Africa. However, the balance of her success tipped precariously in the direction of too much growth and too little managerial expertise to manage this effectively. So reluctantly, she closed that chapter and started to hunt about for a business school to take her to the next level. She settled on Henley, not just because it has a solid academic reputation and international brand, but because friends and colleagues had told her that the school’s focus on flexibility would allow her to manage a busy life while studying.

“As a single mom raising two young boys, I was definitely busy,” she laughs. “I really needed the room to balance my personal and professional life, while setting myself up for global success.”

A bigger picture view of what really matters

But just doing an MBA was not enough for Girly. Her experience with her father was immensely personal, and so she wanted to shape her degree for professional and personal development. Accordingly, her thesis investigated the challenges of health and safety at multinational mining corporations operating in South Africa, where work is both demanding and dangerous.

Confronting the broader circumstances in which her father died also, unexpectedly, has helped in her healing process, she says.

The reality is that running a safe mine in South Africa is challenging, she discovered. Most mines are situated in rural settings, where education levels are poor. Low literacy levels are common, and this puts significant pressure on training and development in health and safety. For Girly, this knowledge, coupled with her personal loss, has helped her to more effectively diagnose where health and safety goes wrong, and adopt a more pragmatic approach that takes into account the realities of business in Africa; finding ways to work within that context is vital. This bigger picture ‘systems level’ understanding might mean, for example, taking extra steps to ensure that health and safety procedures are properly communicated to staff that can’t read them!

“You need to really understand how people feel and what they need,” she says.

Making empathy a priority

Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another - must underpin all health and safety measures, says Girly. And these days it’s more important than ever, because people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress. A global study by Qualtrics found 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health over the course of the pandemic. There is plenty of evidence too that empathy in the workplace helps build trust and wellbeing, which in turn is linked to business performance, operational resiliency and sustainability.

For leaders, Girly says empathy starts with self-awareness, something she defines as key to her own personal success in business – but also a quality that she had to work hard to achieve. Before her MBA, she says she would get emotional and reactionary to unfolding events, and would see every critique from colleagues as a personal attack. Now, she considers these moments as opportunities to grow. “I’ve learned to step back and see the bigger picture, ask questions, and see things for what they are.”

This means that when global oxygen shortages were ravaging parts of the world, for example, Girly had the foresight, empathy and awareness to secure critical oxygen converters for her employees, when they needed it most.

It’s this combination of being both dispassionate and passionate about what really matters, and communicating well, that she thinks can help save lives. Girly now has her sights on a PhD, in addition to revisiting her water treatment business, but wherever her career takes her, her commitment to protecting the most vulnerable will shine through. “Hopefully” she says, “I can help more people avoid the pain I have endured.”

Useful resources:
University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
UCT GSB is internationally renowned as one of a few business schools in Africa with the prestigious triple-crown accreditation with endorsements from EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA.
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