Mental Health Matters at Work

Published by The Business Times on 17 Oct 2019. See published article.

Leaders need to show the way to create a safe workplace culture for employees to thrive.

World Mental Health Day was last week. Falling on the 10th of October, it is organised by the World Federation for Mental Health and seeks to raise awareness and unite in efforts to improve the mental health of people around the world.

We have certainly moved by leaps and bounds in terms of awareness. Mental health was one of the three themes for leaders at the World Economic Forum last year in Davos (the other two being technology disruption and climate change), and closer to home, we recently played host to the 12th Together Against Stigma Global Conference, where President Halimah Yacob stressed that more can be done in combating the stigma of mental health and providing much-needed support for persons suffering with invisible mental health issues, especially in schools and workplaces.

Mental health has pervaded our everyday conversations — whether it be the discourse on this year’s tough questions in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) mathematics paper and the ‘trauma’ inflicted on the 12 year olds, or the record number of teenage boys who committed suicide in 2018 when the figures were recently released.

The importance of mental health for the workplace and economy has also been discussed and studied. The Lancet Commission 2018 Report estimates that poor mental health will cost the economy US$16 trillion — this comes in the form of direct costs in health care, medicine and therapy; as well as indirect costs as a result of employees being unable to reach their fullest potential, stunting innovation, productivity and economic growth.

From Awareness to Action

According to a study by HR consulting group Aon Hewitt, 7 out of 10 employers in Singapore recognised the impacts of stress and mental health on productivity. However, only 51% of firms have implemented wellness programmes to address it. Moreover, 38% indicated no plans to introduce programmes. So how well are organisations in Singapore doing in creating a safe workplace culture for employees to thrive? As organisations invest in new technology to enhance their productivity, or even in the community as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, are they also investing enough in their own people?

In May last year, 25 C-suite leaders and I came together to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a ground-up leaders’ initiative to champion workplace mental wellness as a leadership priority. They represent organisations such as PWC, Dow, DBS, Accenture, Dell, Johnson & Johnson, Shell, NUHS, National Healthcare Group, NCSS, MOE and others. We meet quarterly to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices with each other and to collectively influence systemic challenges such as mental health insurance.

As our first collective action, the Workgroup rallied over 60 employers to support the national Beyond the Label campaign in the workplace on World Mental Health Day last year. These employers also pledged their commitment to the cause beyond the day.

Leaders need to show the way. To create an open culture of care in our organisations, we must start with ourselves. One of our WorkWell leaders whose day job is leading a business generating over $1 billion in revenue chose shared about his mental health struggles and encouraged other leaders to follow suit. Role modelling is an effective way to destigmatise mental health difficulties and spark ripple effects throughout an organisation and beyond

This year, the Workgroup is organising the first-ever CEOs’ Dialogue session at PwC Singapore today. Guest speaker Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, together with eighteen CEOs and key leaders from both the private and public sectors, will be meeting in the closed-door dialogue to discuss mental wellbeing in the Singapore working environment. The inaugural dialogue session aims to address the need for leaders to champion workplace wellbeing as a strategic priority. The leaders will share and learn with and from each other strategic and practical insights on the importance of prioritising wellbeing within their respective organisations.

To seal their commitment, the leaders will sign a joint pledge at the end of the dialogue to champion and prioritise mental wellbeing within their organisations, and the wider Singapore workforce.

Concrete initiatives can include training supervisors and managers to create a positive work culture with open communication channels so that their team members can share their mental health challenges, and peer support training for colleagues to support one another. Personal counselling or coaching and mental health workshops such as the Hush@Workplace Experience could be part of a holistic workplace wellbeing programme.

Employers must also consider abolishing the practice of asking job applicants to declare if they have suffered a mental health condition. If the aim is to promote an inclusive workplace culture of mental wellness, then applicants shouldn’t be asked that question or made to fear that they might be “found out”. The right support structures should be in place for employees to access if they need but hiring should be based on merit.

Workplace adjustments may seem costly, but NCSS’ survey of over 500 companies in 2018 found that every $1 invested in workplace adjustments gives an average of $5.65 in returns in productivity increase, drop in absenteeism, medical claims savings and reduction in hiring costs. 8 in 10 companies surveyed that implemented mental health-friendly initiatives, such as providing private time to nap, meditate or relax, or providing flexible working hours also saw significantly improved staff morale.

Workplace wellbeing has a direct impact on productivity and innovation, and in the quality of life of employees. Every employee is a member of our society. Therefore it is clear that a caring, inclusive, innovative and resilient Singapore can only come from caring, inclusive, innovative and resilient workplaces. As leaders and employers, this is our contribution to making a difference to our society through making workplace mental wellbeing a strategic imperative. This is our responsibility, and legacy.

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur (A Good Space, Hush TeaBar), life coach and author of 50 Shades of Love. She is also on the judging panel of Company of Good, an initiative under National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.

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