Learnings from the Frontline: Q&A with EAPA-SA Board Member, Dr Marion Borcherds | EAPA-SA

We spoke to Dr Marion Borcherds, Group Employee Wellness and Transformation at Transnet and EAPA-SA Board member about her experience and learnings in taking a lead role within employee health and wellness over the national coronavirus lockdown period.

Q: How is employee health and wellness viewed differently, and what new ways of doing things have come into play more quickly, as a result of COVID-19? 

Health and wellness used to be considered fluffy by many organisations – consigned to the backroom and not the boardroom – but COVID-19 has turned things on its head, catapulting health and wellness and EAP into the forefront. Even with mature and entrenched programmes, and where prior to this there might not have been sufficient budget allocated, employee health and wellness has become an upfront issue with all CEOs and COOs. 

Interestingly, one of the things that the advocates of the Fourth Industrial Revolution predicted was that employee health and wellness would become much more important. Ironically, it has taken COVID-19 to make sure that this is precisely what has happened.  Ultimately, there will be no employees to speak of if we do not look after their health and wellness.  

COVID-19 has turned things on its head, catapulting health and wellness and EAP into the forefront.

From the EAP perspective, the more psycho-social perspective, one of the things we focused on in the beginning is the physical aspect of employee health – because the COVID-19 pandemic is physical in nature. But, as the weeks progressed, it became clear that we need to look after worker’s psychological and emotional health – and this is where EAP comes in. It is important that we not forget about this very critical component, because with lockdown people have feeling isolated and not everybody has a great support structure – some people have been staying alone. 

When people have tested positive they’ve needed emotional support.  Another thing that we started to see toward the latter part of lockdown was that people who were managing the containment part of it – managers and supervisors, and caregivers – the EAP community – were starting to show the impact. We had to start considering how to protect them against compassion fatigue and burnout.  While we take care of employees from a physical perspective it’s important not to ignore this vital aspect.

Q: Which elements of employee health and wellness in organisations have shown up as being gaps in South African organisations due to the COVID-19 disaster and how do you see health and wellness, and EAP, programmes changing to keep pace with the times going forward? 

Working in a large organisation, one of the aspects over which we had not taken sufficient care is our working environment and facilities, which is why it is so critical to understand employee-wellbeing in its bigger context; that you are talking about physical, mental and emotional, psychological and environmental wellness. We have had to talk about whether our facilities really are in order.  

For me, one of the gaping holes in employee wellness has certainly been around facilities

We sit in open plan offices fairly close to one another. Does this comply with how people are expected to behave in terms of social distancing? For me, one of the gaping holes in employee wellness has certainly been around facilities; and an important part of our facilities is our canteen.  In our discussions with the Department of Health, we have noted that it is communal areas such as canteens that have seen infections transmitted, because these are places where people become pretty casual with one another. 

Remember, I work in an industry where we have had essential workers working throughout lockdown, right from Level 5, because the ports have still had to operate; and in our partnership discussions this is one of the areas where COVID-19 infection has particularly been transmitted.  People let their guard down – they lower their masks. So, we have really had to look at our canteens. How do we manage areas around physical distancing so that people know they can’t be sitting close to one another? How do we remind them about the golden rules of sanitising?  

These are some of the things that were not necessarily top-of-mind as we’ve looked backward and  it is one of the big aspects that EAPs and wellness programmes are going to have to put increasing focus on.  And, if we as employees observe the golden rules of social distancing and sanitising we will still be able to connect with each other – we will still get to be in each other’s company as we get used to the new normal. 

Q: How and why is it important that the EAPA-SA and its sponsors and members share pandemic learnings, turn to each other for debriefing and support, and take the health and wellness industry forward on the back of the COVID-19 challenge? 

EAPA-SA plays a critical role in the industry and the Association is disappointed that Eduweek has had to be postponed in 2020. We know that at our 2021 event we will be talking about COVID-19 as a pandemic: how it has catapulted the industry forward.  We will be examining what EAPA-SA’s role is as thought leaders in this space and how we will contribute to these conversations – how we will facilitate sharing the lessons and debriefing and supporting each other  as an industry – not just from an emotional perspective but also from a knowledge management perspective.  

I envisage that at Eduweek 2021, on the back of this unprecedented period; speaker topics will be around the pandemic and sharing the learnings.  It is important for the industry to learn from how organisations in the private sector have responded – and how government agencies and departments have responded, and to learn how SOEs, with their many essential workers, have survived through lockdown. EAPA and Eduweek are going to play a critical part in showcasing a lot of this work. 

We know that at our 2021 event we will be talking about COVID-19 as a pandemic: how it has catapulted the industry forward

Personally speaking, I am proud of the health and wellness work we have done at Transnet. I have led the charge on this and have also been appointed as the COVID-109 compliance officer, because The Disaster Management Act requires it.  It is a big company which is very complex, but we are really trying to keep our eye on the ball and be very direct with our protocols, in the way that we apply the regulations, while supporting our staff and educating them, and supporting their families, knowing that we can do all that we can in the workplace, but if people go home and they don’t social distance we have got a problem. 

We have a behaviour-change programme in progress at the moment rooted in positive psychology – this is one of the areas I believe EAPs and wellness managers to be really strong. We’ve started looking at behaviour change, giving people agency and  finding a balance, because what the organisation is doing for employees is all very well but what are they doing when they go home – are they physically distancing and wearing a mask?  This is EAP pure and simple and Eduweek 2021 is going to be about showcasing, learning and moving forward. It is going to make for powerful discussion.

Please refer to the EAPA-SA Workplace Guideline COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-19 Virus for further reading.

Marion Borcherds

Marion Borcherds


Dr. Marion Borcherds has worked within the field of Employee Assistance for the last 20 years in both a senior manager and executive position. She is currently employed at Transnet as the Group Employee Wellness and Transformation Manager, managing the components of EAP, Absenteeism management, Medical schemes, Incapacity and disability management, the HIV/AIDS Workplace programme as well as the Transformation portfolio. She is a thought leader in the employee wellness space, having designed, implemented and managed EWP programmes for both government and para-statals over the years.
She has also worked in academia and private and her expertise in mental health and gender and reproductive health is worthy of noting. Dr. Borcherds is a regular speaker at local conferences on various Employee Wellness related topics.