Building mental health into the new normal of leadership

Published by The Straits Times on 25 Dec 2020. See published article.

This is the unedited draft.

Workplace mental health has taken a front seat this year. Already deemed a ‘highly-stressed’ nation of workers, Singapore saw the COVID-19 pandemic bring a ‘perfect storm of stressors’ to our shores with work-from-home arrangements blurring the line between employees’ work and personal lives, social isolation as people stayed home and offices and shops were shut, fears about job security and restrictions on travel.

Prior to the pandemic, stress-related illnesses were already costing Singapore’s economy S$3.2 billion annually according to a 2019 study. Whether organisations return to their workplaces or continue with their remote working arrangements, are employees ready for the new work normal? How can employers keep their workforce mentally healthy and future-ready in a post Covid recovery?

Last month, the much-awaited Tripartite Advisory on Mental Wellbeing at Workplaces was released. The advisory outlines recommendations to prevent work stress from compromising on wellbeing and productivity at the individual, team and organisational levels.

As a member of last term’s Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Safety & Health, I very much welcome these recommendations which are building blocks for creating a mental health-friendly workplace.

Yet these guidelines, which are necessarily more tactical than strategic in nature, risk becoming merely the responsibility of HR departments unless we also build mental health into the new normal of leadership to transform the culture of stigma to acceptance and inclusion.

Leaders need to set the tone for inculcating employee wellbeing throughout the organisation. How leaders show up as well as the expectations they create and their ability to focus on their employees as whole persons influence the latter’s experience. Introducing wellbeing initiatives without addressing the heart of the issue is not helpful.

Since May 2018, an informal group of C-suite leaders across private and public sectors have committed to making workplace mental wellbeing a leadership priority. Calling ourselves the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, the community has grown three-fold this year to 75 CEOs and leaders. Over three CEO breakfast dialogues, numerous quarterly learning C-suite lunches and many one-to-one conversations, I have observed beliefs and behaviours from the Workgroup members that demonstrate new possibilities in wellbeing leadership for employees and workplaces to adapt and thrive.

This is what a ‘4C WorkWell Leadership Model’ looks like:

1. COURAGE

At the peak of the pandemic, Dr. Daniel Tan who is CEO of ParkwayHealth Laboratory and a member of the Workgroup, wrote about his own state of burnout in an email to employees but found himself hesitating a little before he clicked “send”.

Change requires courage, and vulnerability may be the only true measure of strength. Other leaders of the Workgroup like Hsieh Fu Hua and Piyush Gupta have also shared their personal struggles with mental health, first within the workgroup and later with The Straits Times. Coming forward and sharing our own experiences as leaders and supervisors validates that mental health is a continuum and can affect every one of us, not just some of us. Leaders like Daniel, Fu Hua and Piyush help open up that space of trust for their team members to know that having mental health difficulties does not mean they are less. This helps break the stigma, give hope and encourage help-seeking.

They also become better leaders and managers in the process as they become more aware of who they are (and who they are not), as well as why or how they lead. There is a fierce courage in being able to say “I am not perfect, and that is fine”.

2. COMPASSION (CARE)

In a recent study by Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK — and those respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.

“To know whether the culture is reflective of the company ‘with a heartbeat’ that I want to build is through listening” was what Nishit Majmudar CEO of Aviva shared with us at our CEO dialogue earlier this month, referring to the regular pulse checks they conduct with the workforce. Nishit strongly believes that “employees will go the extra mile and care for the company like their own if the company takes good care of them.”

Now, more than ever, people need to feel that we care about them. As the late American poet Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Leaders may be firm and practical but they can always exhibit a level of compassion.

However, if this compassion does not include themselves, it is incomplete. As leaders, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Self care is important so that we are giving the world the best of ourselves, not what’s left of us.

3. CONGRUENCE

Employees take cues from their leaders and look to them to see how they weather the storms of life. Therefore, leaders mustn’t just say they support mental wellbeing but must also role-model healthy behaviours so that their team members feel they can prioritise self-care and set boundaries.

Finding that he was falling into a pattern of working from 8am to midnight almost everyday with the work-from-home arrangement, Kevin McGuigan, Managing Director SEA Region and Singapore Country Leader of 3M now steps away from his computer between 5–9pm every day. He shared this change openly with his team members and encouraged them “to look for ways to drive a better work-life balance”.

Leaders like Kevin give permission through their actions and behaviours to the type of culture they wish to see in their organisation. Studies have found that organisations whose leaders are role models for prioritising health and work/life balance reported higher median satisfaction rates from employees for their workforce wellness efforts.

Leaders must walk the talk on wellbeing because we are what we do, not what we say we will do.

4. CLARITY (COMMUNICATION)

Offering clarity amid uncertainty is tricky especially since leaders are expected to have all the answers. Authenticity in communication, and being equally open about what is clear and what is not clear is critical to establish trust. One way is by providing clarity of information simply, quickly and frequently, and by demonstrating that as leaders, we’re monitoring this, that we’re on top of it and we’ve got the right people working on it.

PwC Singapore convened a Work from Home Task Force comprising the firm’s partners at the onset of the pandemic which made sure employee mental wellbeing is on its agenda, shared Sam Kok Weng, a senior partner of the firm and a key member of the Workgroup,

Having clarity in their own purpose as leaders and making decisions that tie back to the purpose and values of the organisation will instill confidence and goodwill. In such times, clarity in words and actions can help keep employees safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally, and finally, help them put their experience into context — and draw meaning from it.

“We believe that we must treat everyone fairly to create psychological safety for employees to be themselves and to feel a sense of belonging to the company, regardless of who they are”, shared another Workgroup member Koh Khai Yang, Asia Pacific Chairman of global energy research & consultancy group, Wood Mackenzie. This year, in addition to adding mental health to the company’s benefits programme for all, Khai Yang also made the groundbreaking decision of recognising the status of his employees’ same-sex partners by extending the same spouse benefits to them as heterosexual couples.

Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things, said leadership expert Brene Brown. Mental health is a hard and complex challenge, made more so by Covid-19 and a future that is increasingly more volatile and uncertain as the nature of work changes.

Yet, this crisis of a generation has also presented an unprecedented opportunity for leaders in public and private sectors alike to rethink the employee experience for meaningful and sustainable impact in business performance as well as societal wellbeing. It is no wonder that employee mental health and well-being is fast moving up the priority chain in investor engagement as well.

As Jane Goodall reminded us, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make”.

Instead of seeing the workplace as a source of stress, anxiety and mental ills that must be constantly mitigated, can we commit to making workplaces a source of mental wellbeing as our fundamental responsibility? When leaders show up with courage, compassion, congruence and clarity for wellbeing as a strategic priority, I believe we can.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Anthea Ong was a Nominated Member of Parliament who served during Singapore’s 13th Parliament (2018–2020). During her tenure she championed what she calls the 3Ms of her heart: mental health, marginalised communities (including low wage migrant workers) and Mother Earth (climate crisis/environment), and was appointed member of the Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Health by the Minister of Health in 2019.

A former banker, Anthea was recently a regional managing director with the Informa Group, a UK-listed company where she also double-hatted as the Asia Lead of the Global Corporate Responsibility Board. Prior to that, she held key leadership roles with organisations such as Pearson Plc, the New York Institute of Finance, Terrapinn Group and United Overseas Bank.

She is also a social entrepreneur and investor, and a passionate mental health advocate inspired by her own brush with depression in 2006 from a broken marriage and a broken business that left her with only $16. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together CEOs and C-suite leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to champion workplace mental wellbeing as a strategic priority. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of persons with lived experience with mental health conditions.

Other projects that Anthea also founded include: A Good Space, Singapore’s 1st co-operative of changemakers for diverse and underserved communities; Welcome in My Backyard, a volunteer-run initiative started at the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak in the dormitories to bring Singaporeans and migrant workers closer together; and SG Mental Health Matters, a public consultation and policy advocacy platform inspired by the first public consultation that she and her team of volunteers conducted on mental health in preparation for Budget 2020 debates. .

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

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

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