Mental health is workforce health in Covid-19

Keynote Speech, Asia HR Council Meeting, 22 April 2020

www.workwellleaders.org

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m honoured and delighted to be here with you. Before we start, and in the spirit of the theme of today’s session, could I please seek your indulgence and invite us to take a few mins of mental pause together? If you could sit with your back straight, feet firmly on the ground and allow your shoulders to drop towards the floor away from your ears. Now if you are up for it gently close your eyes but if you are not, just lower and soften your gaze so that you take the pressure of your brain. Let the tension in your body slowly slide away. Now bring your attention to your breath. As you breathe, think quietly in your mind ‘breathing in, I know I’m breathing; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out’………thank you for your trust.

Ladies and gentlemen, our biggest asset is our people — whether as a country or a business. As CHROs, I am sure you see ‘human’ first when you think of ‘human resources’ or ‘human capital’ — not the other way around! I believe, therefore, that we share the same conviction that mental health which is a human condition has a direct impact on innovation, productivity and performance. And that’s why we are here today to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on our employee’s mental wellbeing.

First, I want to qualify that I’m no expert in mental health, but I’m beyond vested in mental health. My relentless advocacy on this issue through my multiple roles as a Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur as well as a leadership and life coach stems from my personal and professional experiences, including my own close shave with depression 13 years ago when my world collapsed in the most colossal manner when I was left with $16, a broken heart and a broken business. I won’t go into that here but I hope you are curious enough to go grab a copy of my book called 50 Shades of Love online which will help psychosocial support programmes for vulnerable children.

For many of us, these first months of 2020 have felt like a ‘horror suspense’ movie that keeps us anxious and on the edge till the end. Except, we are not watching this movie — we are living it, and we still don’t know when’s the end and how it will end.

Many people — some I know and some I don’t — have reached out for help as their lives are turned upside down. An acquaintance almost killed himself two Mondays ago because he’s lost all his gigs as an event emcee. A single mother of a young boy, who lives with an elderly mother, has had her salary cut by 50%. Many migrant workers are living in fear of being stuck with so many in overcrowded dormitories as the disease spreads rapidly..

Pandemics can trigger new psychiatric symptoms even in the healthy, aggravate the condition of those with pre-existing mental illness and cause distress to the caregivers of affected individuals. Safe distancing, constant fear and anxiety, the loss of loved ones, job losses, industrial failures…. will wear down our collective psyche. In fact, a mental health disaster is starting in Wuhan just as the coronavirus crisis is easing. It might take several years for Covid-19 to run its course. Some are even calling mental health the other Covid-19 crisis!

Which was why in Parliament two weeks ago, I urged the Singapore Government to appoint mental health experts to the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force to advise them on mental health implications and commensurate policy interventions including broadcasting to the whole nation practical advice on maintaining mental well-being in various Covid-related situations. I also called for guidance to be published for all employers on supporting their employees’ mental wellbeing. Let me share a little why I asked for that.

Social isolation, employment uncertainty, and the virus itself have combined to shock the health and wellbeing of employees around the world. In a recent study by Qualtrics conducted at the end Mar/early Apr across Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US, two out of five (41.6%) of respondents said that their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak. The number of people who rated the state of their mental health in the lowest range has doubled since the outbreak began. 44.4% of those who are now working from home say their mental health has declined. 65.9% of people report higher levels of stress since the outbreak — top 5 stress contributors were Contracting COVID-19, Financial pressure, Being stuck at home, Loneliness / social isolation and Fears about job security. Almost 80% (79.5%) of those newly homeschooling their children report increased anxiety since the outbreak compared to 53.9% amongst other parents.

These staggering indicators should alert us to this new norm, that in a Covid-19 world, mental health is workforce health.

Covid-19 has illuminated the state of our mental health not as a new problem, but now a much bigger problem. The hoarding, panic buying and even shunning of healthcare workers are all coping mechanisms to deal with underlying fear and anxiety that was triggered but not caused by Covid-19. Research studies by WHO have found that these deficiencies of community resilience can be caused by poor mental health, leading affected communities to be less cohesive, adaptive, and more vulnerable to shocks and disruption. I would argue the same to be true for workplaces.

Yet, this is a grand opportunity for us all. The Country Manager of Dow Chemical Singapore was sharing with me the other day that Covid-19 has helped to accelerate the urgency and facilitate more focus and allocated resources on mental health. So how can we respond as leaders? What actions can companies and managers take to improve wellbeing and mitigate some of the negative effects of COVID-19 outbreak on workers — not just as band aids but as structural and cultural shifts to our organisational psychology? I could come up with an ‘expert’ list of what you could do but that would be us all pretending that there is a technical solution to what we are facing. There isn’t, this is an adaptive challenge so I think I’ll be more helpful if I share some of the experiments and experiences from fellow leaders so we can learn from each other.

In May 2018, 25 C-suite leaders and I came together in Singapore to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a groundup leaders’ initiative to champion workplace mental wellness as a leadership priority. We have now grown to more than 40 in our WhatsApp group! These leaders represent organisations such as Johnson & Johnson, DBS, Dell EMC, PWC, Accenture, BP, Shell, Dow Chemical, the Public Services Division, the Academy of Singapore Teachers etc. We meet quarterly to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices with each other as well as to collectively influence systemic challenges such as mental health insurance. In October last year for World Mental Health Day, we kicked off our first CEO Breakfast Dialogue Series hosted by PWC with CEOs from these organisations including Hsieh Fu Hua, a well known business luminary who not only shared his own experience but also his experience as a caregiver to his daughter who lived with depression. We were meant to have our 2nd one in March but that has been pushed to 10 July as a virtual breakfast dialogue which Anu here and Aviva have kindly agreed to host.

Let me share with pride the strides that some of my fellow Workgroup members have made in the last months to combat the impact of Covid-19 — and you will see that the 2 Cs of CARE and COMMUNICATION are the common threads.

BP has given all employees free access to the meditation app Headspace, offering live yoga and meditation sessions, regular check in sessions led by a mental healthcare professional for employees to take time out to just talk and multiple webinars and materials (e.g. tips and information for working parents). They are also encouraging virtual coffee chats or drinks after work. In leading by example on how critical and strategic a priority mental health is, BP shall be supporting mental health charities. Remarkably, their CEO and Chairman have also decided that they wanted to make a personal contribution and will give 20% of their salaries for the rest of this year to the same.

Similarly, Deutsche Bank is reminding people about EAP access, even letting people who have medical problems take their ergonomic chairs from office to home…, also organising department and team virtual drinks, as well as fun activities like share your #workfromhome photos etc. They have instituted daily core group calls to discuss emerging issues related to Covid-19 and crisis management. All very structured and people-centred yet the spirit of community has never been stronger.

Accenture has partnered with Thrive has partnered with Accenture to bring its Thriving Mind well-being program to an entire enterprise for the first time. The partnership will bring Stanford Medicine’s research to Accenture’s people starting later this year, with plans to scale across the organization in 2020. The digital program, powered by the Thrive Academy, takes participants on a self-directed learning journey to help them prioritize their mental well-being with cutting-edge brain science. This is very in line with Accenture renewed organisation DNA simply called ‘Truly Human’.

For Anglo-American, they started a weekly 30 minute “Wellness in Covid” virtual sessions with meditation, Ted talks, and sharing of best practices across teams. They have also provided a toolkit to all managers to have 1–1 wellness dedicated discussions with each team member weekly, and encouragement for them to lead their teams’ virtual water cooler / coffee chats daily if possible. Also curated a 6-week online series called “Managing your Mind” with external psychologists available to all employees during working hours. All these are in addition to their ongoing wellbeing initiatives where all employees have full access to Headspace, 24/7 external EAP for themselves and families, and regular employee pulse surveys.

Last but not least, PWC is not doing most of the above but they have two creative ideas that I would like to highlight. I shared earlier that almost 80% of employees who are new to homeschooling their children experienced increased anxiety. To support these employees, PWC has introduced regular Q&A sessions with psychologists from CHAT and Caregivers Alliance that specialise in youth and caregivers’ mental health respectively. They have also started a unique regular series on self care and empathy across the organisation with Hush TeaBar. Here, I must do full disclosure that I started Hush TeaBar as a social movement in 2014 but this has since become a social enterprise with full and part time employees — the entire team is made up of two groups of differently-abled persons, Deaf or hard of hearing persons and persons who live with mental health conditions. It always makes me so proud to say that I don’t run it now! At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Hush team had to adapt our well-acclaimed Hush@Workplace silent tea experience to Hush+anywhere because all our onsite corporate projects were cancelled or postponed. PWC saw Hush+anywhere as a one-of-a-kind type of experience for a video conference. The Hush Deaf facilitators teach sign language of different emotions to employees before guiding them through activities to share their emotions with art, all over Zoom. This came from them as I quote “The team had an increase in awareness of not just their feelings, but also the fact that they are not alone. They learnt about each others’ feelings, which enabled them to empathize with one another.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if we pause and think about all that’s going on, it’s rather humbling to know how the tiniest of a living organism that can’t even be seen by the naked eyes has such power to change us for the better, by making us face our fears and flaws so that we can finally see who we are, and who we are to each other. It’s up to us to choose how this ‘horror suspense’ movie will end for us as an organisation, as a society.

I will conclude by urging you not to let a good crisis go to waste. It’s not what happened to us but what we choose to become because of the Covid-19 crisis that will define us as an organisation, as individuals. Because this, too, shall pass and when it does, a more mentally resilient and caring world must be what becomes of us.

There is no health without mental health. In a time of Covid-19, mental health is workforce health which contributes to our social and psychological resilience as a people. Because every employee is a member of society. So leaders, this is your contribution to making a difference to your society, to our world. This is your legacy.

But please do take care of your mental wellbeing, you mustn’t pour from an empty cup because the work you do is important for your colleagues. Thank you for listening and for having me. May you be safe and well. ❤

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top 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 promote workplace wellbeing. 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 Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

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

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