Caring for front-line workers
mentor

By Catherine Wijnberg

As the economic effects of the global COVID-19 disaster grow, the pressure on small businesses is set to rise significantly over the coming months. Entrepreneurs, who feel isolated and alone, will need support now more than ever with technical skills and emotional strength.

As this financial stress and uncertainty about future business viability weigh heavily on entrepreneurs, even worse is the concern that about 1 million South Africans are expected to lose their jobs due to the outbreak, according to an article in Rapport.

Many business owners will have the dreadful task of telling loyal and loved staff members that they cannot be paid or that their jobs no longer exist- this means that entrepreneurs will be tested to their limit.

This responsibility weighs heavily on 700 incubators and accelerators in South Africa that support hundreds of thousands of small businesses. As Elmarie Goosen, a seasoned mentor and founder of The SMME Clinic laments, “It is very hard to stay motivated and I sometimes wonder if my advice even touched sides.”

While the need to care for front-line health-care workers such as doctors, nurses, and social workers is well recognised, few are aware that there is a similar, and equally important care­ network for entrepreneurs that also needs help.

This network is made up of mentors, coaches, and incubation support teams such as project managers and relationship managers.

SME Relationship Manager on the SAB Foundation Tholoana Programme Sibulele Samka says: “It is exhausting to listen to the hardships. At times all we can do is listen, suggest possible solutions, and provide some moral support.”

As the economic toll of COVID-19 reduces corporate profitability and discretional ESD funding for SME support dries up many part-time consultants, mentors, and business coaches will be facing increasingly anxious and uncertain times. Permanent staff too will feel uncertain about their job security.

Anton Ressel, a senior mentor on the FNB Social Entrepreneurship Impact Lab (SEIL), says: “While many coaches and mentors are able to provide support to their mentees and clients remotely, the harsh reality is that many entrepreneurial-driven businesses will not survive the economic pandemic. This poses a threat to the mentoring industry, an additional challenge we must face.”

At times like this, the emotional pressure on the support team is enormous, and mentor burnout is a reality yet recognising the need to care for them has not been widely acknowledged, nor solutions for this been defined, until now.

Researchers in the US developed a support model built on responses to questions health-care workers were asked: what they were most concerned about, what messages and actions they needed from their leaders, and what sources of support they believed would be most helpful to them.

The results were summarised in five key requests: “hear me, protect me, prepare me, support me, care for me”.

Using this framework, business growth specialists and incubation professionals Fetola developed a front­ line care model. These are:

  • Actively listen to the concerns of the front-line support staff, mentors, and coaches and reassure them that real­ time experiences are being used to create solutions. Make sure you have open, two-way communication systems to hear and respond to needs, and everyone feels comfortable using them
  • Be proactive in steps to protect mentors from a) contracting the virus by enabling remote working, and b) where possible protect individuals from the negative economic effects of mass SME-demise, by assuring trusted teams of your commitment to long-term working relationships
  • Provide training to prepare front-line workers (including in-house support teams) for the post-COVID-19 world, starting with training in remote working solutions such as Zoom, Teams, etc.
  • Provide immediate access to digital skills solutions and technology training
  • Support individuals under undue emotional and work-related stress by making extra downtime possible for those who are home-schooling children and enabling access to extra support to those struggling with the enormous emotional burden during this time.
  • This could include, for example, webinars, peer discussions and access to individual psychological support
  • Care for front-line teams by removing unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty, for example, communicate when and how you will support those who are unable to work due to illness.

Taking a long-term view of your business future (your most skilled workers such as mentors and coaches are the foundation of lasting success), discuss strategies to share the burden should short-time or retrenchments be unavoidable.

In summary, this time of crisis requires confident, mindful, and caring leadership. Actions that give comfort to the people on the economic front-line incorporate the five health-sector principles of “hear me, protect me, prepare me, support me, care for me”.

The way we care for our front-line workers in the business-support sector will affect their ability to directly impact the health of our economy and will determine how strong we are on the other side of this global game-changer, COVID-19.

Wijnberg is chief executive of Fetola, leaders in small-business growth – building businesses that last.