Mental Well-being of Workforce in the Midst of COVID-19

9th Labour Inspection Conference, 27–28 May 2021

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for this opportunity to share about mental wellbeing at the workplace. Promoting and enforcing decent working conditions, safety and health standards and respect for fundamental principles and rights at work are at the core of labour inspection activities. Not including mental or psychosocial health would be incomplete when we discuss workplace safety and health, because there is no health without mental health. I’m heartened that we are doing that at this labour inspection forum.

I would not have, in a million years, thought that that deep dark place that I was in 15 years ago from a broken marriage and a broken business that left me with only $16 would set me off on such an unexpected trajectory that would lead to be here with you today.

What was the state of mental health Pre Covid? Back in 2018, WHO already reported that one in four people globally will be affected by mental disorders at some point in their lives. What was it like in ASEAN? In Singapore, one in seven people have experienced a mental health condition in their lifetime. In Malaysia, one in three adults aged 16 and above have a mental health condition. One in seven people in Vietnam suffer from mental health disorders. That is one in 5 in Thailand. In the Philippines, 3.3 million Filipinos live with depressive disorders. Nine million Indonesians suffer from depression, and every hour, someone takes his or her own life! I won’t go on but suffice to say, mental health was already a growing concern in ASEAN prior to the pandemic which prompted the establishment of the ASEAN Mental Health Task Force in 2011. Among other things, the TaskForce found that the gap between treatment needs and their provisions is wide in member states which has huge implications on workforce productivity and workplace safety.

Poor mental health was estimated to cost the world economy US$2.5 trillion per year in poor health and reduced productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism in 2010, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. Bear in mind that this is pre-Covid.

Covid-19 has, therefore, illuminated the state of our mental health not as a new problem, but now a much bigger problem. The pandemic has affected livelihoods and drastically changed how people are living their lives. Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people’s mental health and wellbeing, even in the healthy.

Global studies consistently reported significant decline in mental health since the pandemic. One such study with workers found these 5 top stressors: Contracting COVID-19, Financial pressure, Being stuck and working from home, Loneliness / social isolation and Fears about job security. New fast-spreading variants have caused a surge in infections in many countries and renewed lockdowns which are compounding the mental health challenge. In a recent study by AIA just last month, nine in ten Singaporeans reported a decline in their mental health due to the pandemic! It’s no wonder some are even calling mental health the other public health crisis!

What does this mean for the workplace and how have psychosocial risk factors changed with Covid-19? Quarantines, lockdowns, and self-imposed isolation have pushed tens of millions around the world to work from home. This is likely to continue post pandemic, in some hybrid. Some companies are already planning to shift to flexible workspaces after positive experiences with remote work during the pandemic. A McKinsey survey found that on average, they planned to reduce office space by 30 percent.

But this new way of working comes with these 3 new stressors.

  • First, isolation. The lack of physical connection has left workers feeling they have nowhere to turn when they feel stressed or anxious. It becomes more challenging to form a strong support network which is crucial for good mental health.
  • Second, loss of work and home boundaries. Working from home can also contribute to an increased workload. There’s the temptation to work longer hours, and for those who don’t have a home office setup there’s no disconnect between home and office life.
  • Third, Zoom fatigue. Back to back virtual meetings would not be possible in a physical office. With fewer opportunities for informal catch-ups, many workers are spending more time in these meetings. As well as being a time drain, these video meetings can trigger fatigue and leave participants feeling, ironically, disconnected.

The Covid-19 crisis is also escalating adoption of AI and automation, especially in work roles that are high physical proximity, production figures for robotics in China exceeded pre pandemic levels by June 2020! This disruption creates much anxiety for workers, especially amongst the low wage ones. Pre Covid, nearly all low-wage workers who lost jobs could move into other low-wage occupations but these jobs are increasingly disappearing.

So what can employers do to support the psychosocial health of their employees? How can we build mental resilience?

First, I think we must call out the elephant in the room on mental health that is decidedly different from physical risk factors in workplace safety & health, and that is STIGMA. This stigma prevents us from talking openly about mental health issues and prevents those who need help the most from seeking it. The cost to business and society is high. Without addressing the mental health stigma and discrimination, there can be no mentally healthy workplaces. To address stigma, we have to change the workplace culture — and to change culture, we have to start from the top.

That was what prompted me to come together with 20 fellow C-suite leaders almost exactly 3 years ago to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup to champion workplace mental wellbeing as a strategic priority, not merely a HR department responsibility. We now have over 70 CEOs and leaders in our growing community. Several of the leaders also contributed to the seminal Tripartite Advisory for Mental Wellbeing at Workplaces in Singapore. From our community of leaders, we observed that there are four leadership behaviours that address stigma and promote an inclusive wellbeing workplace culture; they are Courage, Compassion, Congruence and Clarity (I can share more later if you are interested).

When the leaders walk the talk, a culture of trust and psychological safety can then become the bedrock for upstream capability development and downstream capacity building strategies to work. You heard John share about iWorkHealth as a baseline assessment strategy. Aside from the usual EAP or employee assistance programmes including counselling, mental health aid training, mental health benefits, peer support & team manager training, what was overwhelmingly consistent across the CEOs and leaders in the WorkWell Leaders community was the laser-sharp focus on creating new ways for employees to connect, now that they are no longer working in the same space.

Work gives us identity, structure, a sense of connectedness and belonging as relationships develop. Studies have found that those who have positive relationships with co-workers often have better physical and psychological health, and a lower risk of burnout. People who work in healthy workplaces are more likely to share ideas, work efficiently, engage with others, and feel good about themselves. Workplaces that encourage honest, open discussion among co-workers are more likely to have healthier and more motivated staff. An inclusive culture is important for productivity and innovation which ultimately generates the business results, it’s not just the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. It is no wonder that employee mental health and well-being is fast moving up the priority chain in investor ESG engagement as well.

Let me conclude by repeating the 3 assertions on mental health that I hope you will integrate into your labour inspection strategies. First, there is no health without mental health so total safety and health is an urgent reframe for the work that you do. Second, mental health is a continuum from good to poor. Every one of us moves along this continuum at different points in time through our life no matter who and where we are, no one is spared unless you are a robot! Instead of seeing mental health from the lens of disability, let’s give more focus to preventive and promotional strategies instead of just corrective strategies so workplaces can someday be the source of positive mental wellbeing, instead of the cause of stress, anxiety and mental ills. And last but not least, mental health is workforce health in Covid times, and post-Covid recovery. This, I think, is impossible for any employer today to disagree.

Thank you for listening, I hope that was helpful and look forward to the conversation later.

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Anthea Ong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (A Good Space, Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, SG Mental Health Matters), Leadership Coach and Author of 50 Shades of Love. www.antheaong.com

Here’s a link to my long and short bios.