Now that the wages strike in the platinum sector by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is finally over, the real work begins, says Charissa Bloomberg. “There is so much work to be done in this area. Besides the breach of trust and loss of faith, production is now behind and everyone has to make up for lost time and money. It is a recipe for disaster.

“With all the problems that the mining industry faces, I think a site psychologist can play a hugely supportive role. In fact, I cannot believe this has not happened sooner. We are dealing with such a crisis. It is imperative, moving towards the future, that there is a role for a psychologist to play.”

Bloomberg explains that the term ‘site psychologist’ evolved gradually over the seven years she has been travelling to different sites in South Africa and Namibia. “Someone along the way started calling me ‘the site shrink’. I think that is how the name started. It has also becomes a joke on-site when I arrive. This alone lifts the energy.”

Bloomberg says that the role of ‘site psychologist’ has grown from initially just doing training to a broader range of duties. “I have written my own job description,” she says. A site psychologist differs from an industrial psychologist, for example, who works more in the corporate environment, whereas a human resource specialist deals more with employment contracts and assists with demobilisations, industrial relations, performance reviews and in-house training

Personal level

“I think that a site psychologist should know all the psychological issues that come from working on a site, whether it is mining or construction. On a personal level, it is very difficult for employees, as many live away from their families and go home once a month, or sometimes are away for much longer. This puts a strain on any family relationship. The divorce rate is high. So are the levels of alcohol consumption. Thus having a full in-depth knowledge of employees’ personal challenges is crucial.”

Bloomberg explains that her first action as a site psychologist is to conduct a thorough needs analysis. “Sometimes mini team builds are needed between the site engineers and foremen due to a disconnect between these two groups; other times it is the burning issue of anger management. Everyone is so stressed that they lose their tempers. Pushing production is very stressful, especially if you are not making target.”

The site psychologist also needs to be sensitive to motivation levels on a particular site. “Morale can be low, or there can be a manager, leader or contracts director who is micro-managing staff and who does not treat people with respect. The morale just drops, like it does before demobilisation.”

Of course, a site psychologist must also be ready to be everyone’s personal psychologist. “Besides the training and team builds that I do, I also mentor people who want to improve their anger issues or their management styles. But I also open my door to staff’s personal problems. People are able to build trust with an outside person, knowing that I am not a permanent staff member; I work by myself and am contracted to a place for a certain period of time. I am not a threat, and they know I cannot break confidentiality.”

Emotional intelligence

The site psychologist must also be able to conduct emotional intelligence assessments in order to provide an outline of the strengths and weaknesses of workers and management, and how this impacts on the overall site. Then there is the issue of debriefing in the event of any accidents or deaths. “I was on hand to debrief a group after two died in a tragic bus accident. I have also been on hand many times when a family member has died and someone is struggling at work.”

Another critical aspect of the job is being able to deal with poor performance, which often means understanding the underlying causes or stressors. “A head of department once wanted to get rid of a female site engineer. He felt that she was useless. In a last-ditch attempt he asked me talk to her. Turns out her seven-month-old baby had swine flu. Once I got her the support she needed, she thrived, and is since one of that company’s most productive engineers.”

Despite all the careful planning and training, Bloomberg says that often an important crisis or flashpoint will take precedence, or someone needs to talk to her urgently. “So the day never turns out how you planned.” In addition to assisting ordinary employees, she also has to be able to deal with people at top management level, such as directors.

“Often huge contracts comprise joint ventures with three or more big mining or construction companies involved. Each has its own culture and way of managing and leading. This filters down to all levels, and can cause chaos. I feel that each construction company needs to come together beforehand and spend a day or so where they all discuss how they are going to move forward so that they can all be on the same page,” comments Bloomberg.

Work is never done

Needless to say, a site psychologist’s work is never done when leaving a site either. “There are reports to write and research to conduct. I have co-published a paper on emotional intelligence in construction management, and have devised a stress-level measurement and motivational survey. I have also created a psychological incident mental status assessment for when there has been an accident or injury on-site.”

Another issue is the potential danger. “There are huge dangers involved. I have been at Medupi when there were strikes and labourers were burning cars; also just travelling on the roads to get to site is a risk on its own.” Bloomberg is philosophical about the risks: “It does come with the job,” she says simply. “As well as the fact that there is a lot of responsibility to deliver results, proving oneself as a white woman in a man’s world is also exciting, but comes with pressures.

“I had to prove myself initially, and it was hard.” Bloomberg says she can get up to 16 sullen, hostile men walking into her training room at any given time, from HSE and site engineers to foremen, questioning why they were procrastinating when they had to oversee a multimillion dollar construction or mining project. “I have to win them over and get them to enjoy themselves,” says Bloomberg.

“I have had to work hard. I have devised a fun way of training that has nothing to do with Powerpoint presentations, but instead incorporates lots of roleplaying, sharing, brainstorming and even devising songs that incorporates the values that they want to uphold in their teams.”

Cultural diffuser

Bloomberg says that while she has learnt a smidgeon of Xhosa, her main cultural diffuser is humour. “I make the men laugh in training. I swear with them and catch them off guard. I take their side and help make their life easier in every way I can on-site.

“Of course, I have learnt to stand up for myself. In fact, I have become fearless. I pop into offices, see individuals between training, and push hard to get changes. I am on-site for a week, and in that time I set my own targets for what needs to get done. I have had to learn to put up boundaries, and yet be caring and helpful. My motto is that I am there to ‘uplift, inspire and motivate’,” says Bloomberg.

Perhaps the biggest problem, surprisingly, is poor leadership and management on-site. This can create a powder keg of simmering stress, anger and low morale. “I understand leaders have a huge responsibility, but you get more from employees if you treat them with respect. I can arrive on-site and do a walkabout, and immediately feel the energy of the place. Usually this is closely related to leadership and how the site is managed.”

Although each mining and construction site can be a study in contrasts, Bloomberg says that “the basic human element is the same. You have people struggling with the same problems, wherever you are.”

Charissa Bloomberg

A native of Cape Town, Bloomberg established Hidden Dimensions Corporate Training, of which she is the CEO. The company focuses on corporate training, psychology lecturing, recruitment, counselling, mentoring, leadership and change management. Her speciality is construction and the mining environment, with eight years’ experience in on-site support and training. Her clients and sites include some of the biggest names in mining and construction, from WBHO to Murray & Roberts, Grinaker LTA, Concor, Eskom and Anglo American.

Bloomberg is a registered psychologist (MA Psychology UCT, distinctions, 1998), in addition to holding a psychodrama and group dynamics qualification from Oxford University. She is a drama and oral communication teacher (Trinity College London, 1986), an accredited emotional intelligence trainer and a life skills facilitator (UCT, 2003). Bloomberg is currently busy with a PhD on dolphin-assisted therapy.

She can be contacted on 082 737 8988 or cb@hiddendimensions.co.za.