2 Big Questions for the Wicked Problem of Workplace Mental Health

Closing Keynote, 4th Annual One Mind at Work ‘Advancing Brain Health in the Workplace’ Global Forum, 9-10 Sep 2020

A very big hello, everyone! I would have said ‘good afternoon’ but it feels a bit strange saying that when it’s actually 5am in the morning over here where I am in Singapore, some would even say this is the darkest hour before dawn. :)

Grateful to Garen and One Mind at Work for having me. Deeply honoured to be giving the closing keynote, although I am bummed that because of the 15-hour time difference, I’ve not been able to join this forum although I did login at 1130pm on Wednesday night for the opening before giving up at 2am. How did I use to be able to stay up all night those many moons ago?

In the spirit of mental wellness and I understand we discussed breathing earlier, could I invite you to do 3 deep breaths with me?

I was holding deep gratitude in my meditation earlier. Because I would not have, in a million years, thought that that deep dark place that I was in 14 years ago from a broken heart, a broken marriage and a broken business leaving me with only $16 would set me off on an unexpected trajectory that would lead me to be here with you today, even if I am speaking to you from Singapore instead of being in the famous Californian vineyard I’ve heard so much about!

Nor could I imagine being in the Parliament of Singapore as a parliamentarian for the last two years championing relentlessly for mental wellbeing to be a whole-of-government and whole-of-society priority, and for mental healthcare policies to address stigma and discrimination. Including keeping the mental health impact of Covid-19 front and centre in Parliament as we debated across so many issues to pass 5 supplementary budgets worth a $100bil within a space of 4 months!

Or that in May 2018, 25 C-suite leaders and I would come together to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup because we were convinced that mental health must be a strategic priority at the workplace - and not merely about HR policies and programmes, if we are to be adaptive as organisations to an emerging future that’s increasing more volatile, more ambiguous and more uncertain.

We meet quarterly to share and co-create inclusive practices but I’m most heartened by our closed-door half yearly CEO dialogue series which really reinforces our mission to create change at the highest level. CEOs and leaders come together in a safe space to learn with, and learn from each other as well as take actions as a collective to influence systemic changes whether in their sectors and/or their organisations in mental health. These dialogues support the deep leadership work needed on the part of CEOs and leaders to go beyond discussing hard-nosed strategies (which we do too) to bring about the empathy and cultural shifts needed to address stigma and discrimination of mental health in the workplace.

In our last CEO Dialogue two months ago, we had almost 70 C-suite leaders - 35 CEOs and top leaders across the private, people and public sectors accompanied by their plus-ones who are COOs, CHROs and heads of diversity & inclusion.

Because every employee is a member of society, the position we have as leaders is therefore a privilege and a responsibility to build the kind of society we want to live in by how we support our employees to thrive as whole persons at work and in their community. This is more important today than ever since how we lead through disruptions in the face of Covid-19 will determine how we can support our employees and organisations, and therefore our societies, to emerge stronger, and build back better.

After two days, I’m sure you don’t need to hear any more stories or data from me to convince you of the urgency or scale of the mental health challenge at the workplace. Nor the exacerbated risks in mental health, even trauma, that have been caused by Covid-19 which many are expecting will have a long tail or the best practices that you would have heard and learned from many that confirm why it’s both a right and smart thing to do as employers to prioritise workplace mental health.

Yet, we know that we cannot solve a problem with the same way of thinking that created it in the first place. For a complex challenge like mental health, I think we need to think differently with what we now know. So putting my leadership coach hat on (which incidentally is from California!), I thought that maybe I could contribute to this closing keynote by posing 2 big questions to you to imagine new possibilities as leaders. (Truth be told, this is my way of telling you that I’m no expert and don’t have the answers! But I am a big fan of asking questions to solve wicked problems which often irritates the establishment in Parliament.)

First, what is the personal change that you would commit to make as leaders in supporting the wellbeing of your employees?

Our reflex response is often to look at solutions outside of ourselves, but what if we are also the solution?

We have discussed how we foster more connections for emotional and relational wellbeing, build a trauma-informed workplace, support digital health, and empower employees to be agents of change - these all point to change, to a new workplace culture for a new wellbeing norm.

If I could see you and ask you who wants change, I am very confident that most of your hands will be raised! But what if I ask you who wants to change?

It’s a bitter pill to swallow I know but I think we are astute enough to acknowledge that, as CEOs and leaders, we contribute to that culture that’s still not safe for vulnerabilities to be shared, that’s still not encouraging help-seeking and that’s probably still not mental health-friendly.

It was with this in mind that we designed our last CEO Dialogue to ask these hard questions. Countless leadership models focus on a leader’s role as setting visions and priorities, driving strategies, influencing others and making things happen (well, we do get paid to do all that!). But Gallup’s extensive research across 10,000 employees worldwide found that what followers need from their leaders are quite different from what leaders think they should be. These needs were: trust, compassion, stability and hope.

Now you may be wondering where I am going with this, what does this have anything to do with employee mental wellbeing? Yes, as employers, we would understandably focus on downstream measures such as tertiary interventions like EAP and counselling therapy or secondary interventions like stress management or mindfulness training. But when we don the hat of leaders, then it becomes plain clear that meeting these four needs of our followers especially in the face of Covid-19 would be a critical upstream (or primary) intervention that will help bring about mental wellbeing for our people.

This is hard to do that because we ourselves would then have to change! We grappled with this in our last CEO dialogue: What or who do we need to be to build trust, show compassion, provide stability and inspire hope? What makes us lose sight of these as leaders?

A senior partner in a global consulting firm I know who leads a US$1bil business bravely shared his experience with generalised anxiety disorder in a company town hall. At a session prior to the CEO dialogue, the Group CEO of the largest banking group in Asia openly offered his personal experience with self stigma and denial at our last CEO - not seeking help despite years of high stress. Not sleeping a wink for a week in a row finally drove him to seek professional help and medications. He made significant changes in his life especially in self care and translated this mental health journey into how he now leads the bank with mental wellbeing at the top of his mind.

Change requires courage, vulnerability may be the only true gauge of strength. I think coming forward and sharing our own experiences really help open up that space of trust for our followers to know that having mental health difficulties doesn’t mean they are less. We help break the stigma, give hope and encourage help-seeking. But I also think we become better leaders in the process as we become more at ease with who we are. I personally believe that we are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.

The other big question for you is this. Instead of passively accepting that the workplace is the cause of stress, anxiety and mental ills and finding solutions around this problem definition, what would it look like if we reframe it is a source of positive mental health for our society?

No, I’m not referring to billiard tables and well-stocked pantries that are in themselves commendable in instilling fun at the workplace and creating a sense of community. I’m challenging us to paradigm-shift from incremental workplace adjustments to seeing every employee as a whole person beyond what they do and who they are in the workplace. In other words, how can we proactively support every employee in the different roles that they play in their families and communities so that they leave work with the best of themselves to give to their world, not what’s left of them? This means they are in the best state of mental health when they are with their loved ones because of their time at work and the workplace.

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe not. Some of the CEOs I know are beginning to experiment with this mental wellbeing paradigm shift. They focus on the ‘human’ part of human resources and human capital, not ‘resources’ or ‘capital’. At the height of Covid-19 lockdown when schools moved online, one large multinational energy company started providing workshops on home schooling skills and specific counselling support for employees with young children, including the children. They plan to continue this beyond Covid-19 with parenting capacity programmes for new parents and parents with young children. Another global consulting firm has also begun designing and implementing comprehensive support structures for employees who are caregivers of elderly with special needs. So coming to work becomes a source of positive mental health for these employees as the workplace supports them to better show up for the other aspects of their lives, beyond work.

A recent study in the January/February 2020 issue of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry confirmed that respondents who believed they had meaning in their life had better physical and mental health scores and higher cognitive function compared with those who didn't. As I’m saying this, I am reminded of the poem by Khalil Gibran - work is love made visible. I see this to mean that we should be able to define our work as a visible product of our personal passion. This doesn’t mean we necessarily have our dream jobs but it does mean that we can carve out the space in what we do to express our passion within the workplace. In other words, how can we enable employees to realise, beyond career goals, their deeper human aspirations of meaning and purpose?

How audacious, you might say, to imagine this possibility that we could have workplaces where meaning could be found! But why not? Why can’t workplaces be where individuals thrive as whole persons? Someone was suggesting this paradigm shift to me the other day: instead of ad-hoc food or goodie bag distribution to charities, why can’t a large fast food chain invest in and empower their low-wage employees to come up with solutions for their own communities - the workplace then offers not just a job, but meaning and dignity and therefore better mental health outcomes?

It’s always impossible, until it is done. What personal change will you make as part of the solution to this complex challenge of workplace mental health, and what would the workplace look like if it is to be a source of positive mental health for our society? These two big questions might seem audacious and impertinent now but I would remind us all to recall how convinced we once were that flexible work arrangements could never be mainstreamed for productivity and other reasons until this tiny virus called Covid-19 showed us otherwise.

That night 14 years ago, when I was lying down on the floor with only $16 in my bank account, I was so awashed with shame and despair that for a fleeting moment, I even contemplated the distance between the big windows of my 18th floor apartment and the ground below - incidentally today, 10 Sep, is World Suicide Prevention Day. It seemed impossible then to get out of that deep dark place but I did because of the support system and inner resources I had, and still have. Everybody deserves that but not everyone has that.

There is no health without mental health. We are responsible for each other’s mental health which is not a fixed state but a continuum, because well, we are humans and life gives us different experiences through the course of our time here. In Covid-19 and beyond, mental health is workforce health. As we leave this powerful learning forum thanks to One Mind at Work, may we commit to being unwavering on wellbeing as our fundamental responsibility - to ourselves, our employees and our community. And may we never forget to celebrate the courage, collaboration and collective actions in this important work across the world.

Thank you again for having me, Garen and thank you all for listening. May you stay safe and be well. _/\_

Anthea Ong is the former Nominated Member of Parliament for the 13th Parliament of Singapore. In her term as NMP between 2018–2020, she spoke on behalf of youth activists and sex workers, proposed a national suicide prevention strategy, conducted a public consultation on the mental health landscape, made recommendations for closing our digital divide and advocated for greater work injury compensation and other forms of support for migrant workers (you can find all her speeches on her Medium account and the Wikipedia that her supporters set up for her :)).

Anthea is also a full-time social entrepreneur, having founded and co-created several ground-up initiatives/impact businesses, including Welcome in My Backyard, Hush TeaBar, the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, A Good Space, Playground of Joy, and Project Yoga-on-Wheels. She also served as the president of the Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS) from 2010 to 2017, which helps women embrace ageing with confidence, and was the Founding Board Member of Daughters of Tomorrow, a registered charity that provides individualized coaching to vulnerable women.

Prior to social entrepreneurship, Anthea held leadership roles with multinational organisations including Pearson Plc, New York Institute of Finance, The Terrapinn Group and United Overseas Bank, where she expanded and solidified market leadership positions. She founded the Singapore-based education and technology consultancy, Knowledge Director Group, which advised governments in developed Asian economies on education transformation and innovation strategies in addition to being an inventor for an award-winning educational technology application. Most recently, she was the regional Managing Director with Omega Performance Inc., a strategy consulting group for banks & financial institutions based in Washington DC, where she double-hatted as the Asian Lead of the Global Corporate Responsibility Board for its parent company, Informa Plc.

She is a published author for the anthology “My Story. My Life” by National Library Singapore, and author of 50 Shades of Love, a unique wood-cover book memoir with life coaching questions and trees.

Anthea is also a professional certified coach with the International Coach Federation, and has served over 50 clients from all around the world. She is also a certified yoga instructor and reiki practitioner, and an avid traveller to off beaten tracks like Antarctica, Mt Everest Base Camp and Siberia.


A full-time human, and part-time everything else.