With determination retrenchment can be a new beginning
With determination can be a new beginning By Helen Grange MADGE WILSON was retrenched in London in the wake of the 11 September crash of the technology sector. Up until then, she'd been flying high, working in the venture capital division of Henderson Global Investors, where she was helping to launch technology businesses. She felt panicked, and couldn't quite believe her long climb up, with all her accolades on the way, had come to this. "After a while, I stepped back and looked at my situation and decided to come back to South Africa and start again, in the executive headhunting business. I began at the bottom, but I really applied myself to it. It was hard. I often thought 'do I really want to do this?'," she recalls. Five years later, Wilson is partner at Jack Hammer headhunting services in Cape Town, flying high again. She has noticed the toll exacted on people who've borne the brunt of the global economic meltdown. Recession hit South Africa at the end of last year and, since then, retrenchments have rippled through many industries, primarily manufacturing, mining, retailing and wholesaling. And, like Wilson, the thousands who've been affected feel panicked and desperately worried about their future.
Though it's early days, the experiences of A big stumbling block in the way of starting over is an inability to express worry and concern, to ask for much-needed help. people who've been retrenched in the past are indicative of what to expect in any recession. In some scenarios, retrenchment actually spelt a new beginning, a push in a more fulfilling direction, helped by a dash of courage and a leap of faith. It was the impetus, for instance, for Fiona MacDonald who, after being let go from her company in 1997, started up an NGO called CHoiCe Comprehensive Health Care. Under her passionate stewardship, it grew quickly into a dynamic and progressive organisation that today attends to the needs of thousands of impoverished rural people in Limpopo. In 2005, MacDonald won the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year award in the health category. "It was a tough time, and often lonely," recalls MacDonald. "I also found it very difficult to split work from home and ended up working long hours, but I never doubted that starting on my own was the right thing to do. I am grateful to have been retrenched. It forced me to stick my neck out and see that I am a leader." Isabella Palmgren's story is more typical of how things pan out in a recession environment. She was first retrenched from an office admin job in 2002, then again after taking another office admin job. "The company didn't make it," she says. Following that, she moved on to a position in customer service in Cape Town, where she has been for nearly five years. Palmgren's real calling is photography, which she studied after her first retrenchment and continues to pursue part time, but it has never paid the bills. "Let's say retrenchment forced me into what I really enjoy, but it has never been viable full time.
The 'happy ever after' story does not apply to me. Yet, that is. I don't give up easily," she says. Unfortunately, a lack of will to start again -let alone succeed at something else - is a more common reality, especially among older men, says wellness trainer and coach JanineShamos, who also counsels at the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). A big stumbling block in the way of starting over is an inability to express worry and concern, and to ask for much-needed help, which ends up in alienation, even at home. Derek*. a 45-year-old business consultant who lost his comfortable contract a while ago, told a SADAG counsellor: "I had just bought a new car, had house payments and school fees, not to mention all my kids'extramural expenses. I lay awake every night, worry eating me. I couldn't tell my family what had happened -how could I?" Many South African men and women have recently found themselves in a similar predicament, which produces enormous stress and very often, depression, says Shamos. A disturbing number of people - whether they're in serious debt or without a job - use alcohol or other illegal substances to "self-medicate" their stress, or think of suicide as a way out. "In South Africa's present financial situation, chronic and acute stress as a result of financial pressures are critical considerations in suicidal behaviour," confirms Johannesburg psychiatrist Dr Dora Wynchank, adding that men - socialised to be "strong" - are the worst affected. According to Shamos, some people -understandably - tend to take a retrenchment personally, which it is not. "You need to remind yourself that losing your job because the world's economy is a mess is not your fault. It does not mean you are useless and bad at what you do," she says.
Like Wilson, the challenge is to take a step back and try and see the wood, not the trees. Then, to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start marketing yourself aggressively again. While you're still feeling fragile, Shamos suggests turning off the news, putting the newspaper away a couple of hours before bed, doing something that reconnects you with the positive aspects of your life - walk in nature, listen to music, talk to the people you love. "Read a funny book, something to make you laugh and get your mind off money. Avoid the temptation to sleep in and make looking for a job your job. Network with all and sundry, and socialise. Remember, you aren't alone. And look at how you're handling stress - if you're turning to substances, it's time to talk to a professional," she says. Michel Muller, one of the many casualties of the advertising crunch currently thinning out newspapers, is greeting the future with a mixture of fear and excitement. "Actually, I've been thinking for a while that it's time for something else," she says. Having weathered losing her job before, she's accustomed to finding otherwaysto make money. "In 2000, I found myself unemployed in East London, so I started a restaurant business with my partner, from our home. It was hard work, but it took off, perhaps because there wasn't anything as homely and fun in town at the time.
Our meal prices were excellent, because we stuck to a set menu and people brought their own liquor." Having downloaded the forms, Muller - like thousands of others - is now bracing herself for the Unemployment Insurance Fund IUIF) queue in Johannesburg, and is thinking of starting up a kitchen-cum-restaurant again, this time at her home in Triomf, Johannesburg. Starting a business in a recession, of course, is precarious and certainly not for everyone, in which case Wilson offers the following advice: "Get that CV in good shape and get it out there! There are dozens of websites showing you how to write a good CV, for free. Get yourself on networking sites like Linkedln and Facebook. Now is the time to market yourself and, if you have the money, upgrade your skills. "And when you get that interview, be prepared and present yourself well, without being overbearing, but with a confidence that says to the interviewer, 'You can't do better than me!'" The good news is that, according to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, recessions last an average of 11 months, while upturns tend to last for six years. So this, too, shall pass. & SADAG has an extensive list of resources throughout the country - psychologists, psychiatrists, lay counsellors and support groups. It also offers telephonic counselling. It can be reached on 011 262 6396 or 0800 50 20 56, or on the substance! abuse line 0800 12 13 U.