Learnings from the Frontline: Unforeseen Challenges Arising from an Unprecedented Disaster | EAPA-SA

EAPA-SA Board member, Dr Pravesh Bhoodram, has given us his personal insights into the challenges that have been faced within the Department of Correctional Services and its EAPs while dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic among employees – as well as his take on what research topics would be of future benefit to the EAP industry. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown affected employee health and wellbeing within correctional services within South Africa – particularly with it being such a stressful sector in which to work?

The Department of Correctional Services(DCS) is similar to most other departments, but it is also unique in that it has to take care of offenders as well.  The issue of lockdown in the department has been a very difficult one in the sense that initially there was no common understanding as to who was a part of essential services and who was not. This caused some consternation as we have employees who are employed under the Public Services Act, which does not make them part of the essential services.  These are employees who work within the head office, regional offices and some of the community corrections offices. So, the first challenge we faced was the reclassification of those who were not essential personnel, so that departmental operations would continue to function effectively. 

The first challenge we faced was the reclassification of those who were not essential personnel

Challenges brought about by EAP non-essential service classification

The next challenge we encountered is that Labour was not a part of the initial processes; and at the outset we thought that because the lockdown was a directive by the President that it would indeed not necessitate contacting, conversing and also collaborating with Labour up front.  Labour subsequently made it very clear to the department that this was not the case. This caused a lot of uncertainty. 

One of the other challenges we experienced was that the DPSA – the Department of Public Services and Administration – had issued a directive indicating who was essential services and who was not and this caused a lot of consternation among our EAPs, specifically because under this directive they were not classified as essential.  So, it took some discussions, some repealed circulars and lots of conversations before we were able to direct the EAPs in the way that they should have been from the outset.  

The challenge of EAPs having to fill in for occupational health nurses

I have regularly received calls from EAPs indicating that in their regions and management areas they have been requested to conduct screenings and they are of the opinion that this task should have been reserved for our occupational health nurses.  Unfortunately, in our department we do not have occupational health nurses and as a result this was left to some of the EAPs.

One of the positive outcomes of this disaster is that management has comprehended the vital role of our EAPs

The challenge of being outnumbered

Another challenge our department has faced has been how to motivate our EAPs, because we are outnumbered in relation to the staff compliment. Fortunately one of the positive outcomes of this disaster is that management has comprehended the vital role of our EAPs and as a result they have made the decision that our EAP staff compliment is going to treble – probably in the next year – which is a really good, positive outcome.

The challenge of caring for offenders with a lack of equipment

Then, there is the issue of having to deal with offenders. Fortunately we have a good medical team. We have nurses who work with offenders, we have hospitals, we have quarantine sections and those have been managed very, very well. The biggest challenge, I think, facing the department has been the procurement of temperature scanners, masks and sufficient sanitiser.  It has been a huge challenge and it has only been in the last week or so that we have managed to procure some of these necessities, while temperature scanners are still difficult to procure.

What we have done is change all of our workshops where our offenders now produce fabric face masks. 

The challenge of a lack of disaster management training

The other challenge we have experienced is that we have employees, specifically leaders, who are not trained in disaster management. Fortunately, I had developed a critical incident response model (CIRM) for the department and I think that is something that has assisted us in helping to provide some direction – especially to our EAPs. During our roll outs of the programme over the last few years we have conducted training on the CIRM.

Q: What EAP industry research would you like to see come out of the covid-19 pandemic?

Disaster management

I think that for me, the most important area of research would be the EAP role in disaster management; and I think as EAPA-SA we have started, and we are on the right track, when it comes to disaster management.  It is unfortunate that this project has not been carried through over the years and I think it is time to go back to the drawing board and actually give direction to EAPs because EAPs are getting different versions of where they are supposed to be placed and what they are supposed to do in times of crises. So, for me, most importantly, it would be research on the role of the EAP in disaster management. 

Most importantly, it would be research on the role of the EAP in disaster management. 

How to motivate and care for EAPs

The second would be research on how to motivate and care for your EAPs, because I find that this has become my role over the last few days.  What do I find to motivate my EAPs? How do I ensure that while they are working on the front line, dealing with staff that they are managed and kept happy and healthy as well?  

 I would like to see some research on reporting structures and process models

Reporting structures

Thirdly, I would like to see some research on reporting structures and process models in terms of dealing with the pandemic, because I am quite sure that this is not the first lockdown we are going to have. I feel that there are going to be two more lockdowns – and that is being very conservative – because this lockdown is showing us how unprepared we are as South Africa, how hopelessly inadequate our processes and systems are – and  how inadequate the Department of Health is in terms of dealing with some of these things. 

How to keep people upbeat, active and healthy

I think that we need to also look at some of the positive stories that have arisen from this pandemic, because I have been getting calls from friends, particularly about how difficult it is for them to find an environment, particularly living in a flat, to manage their children at home. As a teacher in the past I am quite intrigued that parents sometimes tend not to appreciate the role of teachers and I think this lockdown has provided really good grounds to begin to appreciate them.  

So, how do you deal with staying in a confined environment – because this is going to happen again and it may become a way of life for us in the future? How do we keep sane in these times, because people are going to get bored? How do you keep them active?  People are going to over eat and become obese. How do you help them to maintain their health, especially in a confined space? As an avid artist I have decided to paint a mandala on an entire wall at home. You can follow the progress on my Facebook page and on my Instagram – DrPravi accounts 

Managing anxiety and stress due to confinement

There is a lot of anxiety and stress and maybe that is another area that can be looked at. How are levels of anxiety and stress – and issues related to mental health – exacerbated when people are in confined spaces?  

On the positive side, I think that there are many good stories that are coming out of this situation and one of them, which I particularly enjoy, is that people are beginning to be more humane. They are beginning to better understand other people around them and that we need to take care of each other and especially to take care of our environment. 

On the positive side, I think that there are many good stories that are coming out of this situation

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

Pravesh Bhoodram

Pravesh Bhoodram


Dr Pravesh Bhoodram is a pioneer in the EAP field in the Public Service in South Africa having assisted 23 National Departments in implementing an EAP. He has served as an EAPASA Board member since 1998 in various capacities: president, conference convener, finance chairperson and strategic planner. He became the first South African to receive a Special Recognition Award from EAPA International (Vancouver 2001) for his contribution to the profession in South Africa.

He served his second term as a Community Representative on the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa where he has chaired the professional Board for Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, Unani Tibb and Acupuncture. He was responsible for Strategic Planning for Council and chaired the Finance Committee. Dr Bhoodram was a Board member of the Leisure and Recreation Association of South Africa and assisted in organizing the 2016 World Leisure and Recreation Conference in South Africa. He has also lectured on Ethics at the Tshwane University of Technology.

He is an avid artist, art therapist, life coach and is hoping to play a greater role in wellness through this company – CR8IV INFLUENCE in the near future when he retires from DCS in 2020.