Mental wellbeing at work: Important now and always

Keynote Speaker, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, 1 July 2020

SICC LinkedIn Page

Thanks Victor. Hello, ladies and gentlemen — thank you for being here. Instead of me talking into my rose pink Macbook seeing only XX and XX for the next 30mins, I would like us to have a conversation. So if you are game for it, can I ask you to use your phone or laptop and go to www.menti.com, type in 139052. Let’s do a quick check in with ourselves: How are you feeling right now? (use one word to describe if you can)

Thank you for that. This word cloud hopefully allows you to know you are not alone even if we are not in the same room together. Now, let me give you a little warm up for the Hush session that you will have after my sharing by inviting you to take a few mins of mental pause so we bring our racing thoughts to right here and now. Can I invite you to 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’………. Did you know only humans can breathe by volition yet we don’t do enough of it? This is also one of the simplest yet most difficult life hacks — just intentionally breathing. Your stress hormone cortisol goes down immediately which allows you to recalibrate your emotions.

Let me please qualify that I’m no expert in mental health because I am trying my best to practise the zen philosophy that there exists few possibilities in an expert’s mind, but many in a beginner’s mind. However, I’m beyond vested in mental health. My relentless advocacy on this issue through the multiple hats I wear 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 14 years ago when my world collapsed in the most colossal manner — I was left with $16, a broken heart, a broken marriage 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, including Rohingya refugees.

We are here to discuss mental health, so let’s start by getting a sense of the diversity and similarities in our little community here today. What is the one word, that first thought, that comes to you when I say mental health?

GREAT! I was going to start this sharing with giving you some alarming statistics but let me scare you later instead because I would like us to start on a good note by having you commit to this first assertion that mental health is a critical part of total wellbeing. Good mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders, it’s an integral part of overall health. Because there is no health without mental health.

The second assertion is this: like physical health, we must see mental health as a continuum. We may think that mental health challenges only affect certain types of people, or some segments of our society. But if we just pause and have an honest conversation with ourselves, we will realise that we are ALL moving along this continuum at different points in time through our life no matter who and where we are. Because who hasn’t suffered a loss? Who hasn’t had a major life transition? Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed with responsibility for another? Who hasn’t been marginalised in some way? Who hasn’t been made to feel like a failure?

So I want to start this conversation by inviting you to have empathy when you hear of someone struggling. And for those of you who are struggling, I want to assure you that you are not alone, and that it’s not a personal failing. Because wherever you are on this continuum is not solely a matter of personal agency but also largely determined by your social and workplace support structures, or lack of — which is what we are here to discuss.

This is rather simplistic but where do you think you are on this mental health continuum?

OK, now that I’ve assured you, let me scare you. What do you think is the state and prevalence of mental health challenges in Singapore? One in seven persons in Singapore experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, and this is a conservative figure because this 2016 study by Institute of Mental Health only focused on certain conditions, and of course it was pre-COVID. Globally, this number is one in four persons. Will we head there? This is not even thinking considering the higher risk groups such as youth, elderly, low wage workers, single mothers, caregivers, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+.

Pandemics aggravate the condition of those with pre-existing mental illness and cause distress to the caregivers of affected individuals. And can trigger new psychiatric symptoms even in the healthy, Some are even calling mental health the other Covid-19 crisis!

Many people — some I know and many I don’t — have reached out for help as their lives are turned upside down. An acquaintance almost killed himself a few weeks 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%. A small business owner is in deep despair over having to retrench 80% of his staff, some of whom have been with him for over 20 years. Within a week from 2 to 8 June, 4 young people died by suicide — the youngest being 16 and the oldest 22. I could go on — with the deteriorating mental health of our migrant workers including the two suicides who were infected with COVID-19, our seniors who are struggling with loneliness and isolation especially in this Zoom-anic world. I’m also really troubled by the spike in domestic violence — in fact the other day there was one such case in my block. Her screams were just bone-chilling!

Covid-19 has illuminated the state of our mental health not as a new problem, but now a much bigger problem. How many of those with mental health conditions do you think seek help? Yes, this mental health crisis is exacerbated by this other alarming fact: Two thirds of those with mental health conditions in Singapore do not seek help because of stigma, discrimination and neglect. With stigma and discrimination comes shame and helplessness.

In the mental health sector, we often talk about 3 levels of stigma: social stigma, self stigma and structural stigma. Understanding these stigmas, and eradicating them, will help us understand how we can encourage and improve help-seeking behaviours.

According to a 2017 Public Attitudes survey by the National Council of Social Services, 4 in 10 had gross misconceptions and therefore prejudices about persons with mental health conditions. These were some of the misconceptions captured in that survey. Yes, we contribute to the stigma and discrimination.

“Lack of discipline and willpower is one of the main causes of mental health issues.”

“Persons with mental health issues should not be given responsibility.”

“All I know (about persons with mental health issues) is what I have read online, watched movies and so I sort of know them.”

Let me now move to structural stigma. I’m sure we would all agree that the one place we need to change attitudes quickly which will have a significant impact on society is the workplace. A study in Singapore some years back amongst psychologists and psychiatrists found that 90% of mental health conditions have their root cause in workplace stress. Not surprising given how much of our waking hours are spent at work, how the nature of work is changing so rapidly and more importantly, how much of a sense of self worth and dignity we derive from our work. Yet even as 72% of Singapore firms affected by workers’ mental stress, only 51% have emotional and psychosocial programmes in place. The same study by NCSS on public attitudes found that close to 1 in 2 Singaporeans were not willing to work with persons with mental health issues.

Remember I shared earlier that ⅔ of those with mental health challenges do not seek help? Well, this number goes up to 85% amongst those employed! I was pretty disturbed by these numbers to be honest. 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 meet quarterly to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices such as peer support and allyship programmes, mental health first aid training, EAPs etc with each other as well as to collectively influence systemic challenges such as mental health insurance, mental health leave, parity in medical claims. In October last year for World Mental Health Day, we kicked off our first CEO Breakfast Dialogue Series with CEOs from these organisations. We were meant to have our 2nd one in March but that has been pushed to 10 July as a virtual breakfast dialogue which has to be postponed again because it’s now Polling Day!

We also recently put together a Workplace Wellness E-guide as a public service that is free to use where we share our experiences through an I.N.C.L.U.S.I.O.N Framework. I believe the SICC secretariat has sent this out to all members. You may go to our website at www.workwellleaders.org to download.

Social isolation, employment uncertainty, and the virus itself have combined to shock the health and wellbeing of employees around the world. With the workforce, (SLIDE) what % of employees do you think are reporting a decline in mental health since COVID-19 started? 1 in 5, 1 in 4, 1 in 2. In a recent study by Profile Asia, nearly one in two working in Singapore reported that their mental health had been adversely affected by COVID-19.

For those of you leaders and managers out there, this is another assertion for today: in a Covid-19 world, mental health is workforce health. This is a grand opportunity for you to ask yourselves — how can you respond as leaders? What actions can your company and your managers take to improve wellbeing and mitigate some of the negative effects of COVID-19 outbreak on employers — not just as band aids but as structural and cultural shifts to your organisational psychology and DNA?

Aside from EAP for all staff, British Petroleum or BP has given all employees free access to a meditation app, 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 with the safe distancing measures.

Johnson & Johnson’s vision is to have the healthiest workforce in the world, including mental health. They also have a Chief Mental Health Officer that reports to the Group CEO and recently started a unique regular series on self care and empathy across the organisation with Hush TeaBar — which you will get to experience a taster after this talk. 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. I don’t run it anymore, the team led by Ning Pei keeps flourishing. At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hush had to adapt our well-acclaimed Hush@Workplace silent tea experience to Hush+anywhere because all our onsite corporate projects were cancelled or postponed. JNJ saw Hush+anywhere as a one-of-a-kind type of experience. 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. I won’t give too much of it away — better for you to experience it for yourself later, and hopefully you will bring this to your workplace for your colleagues and employees!

I would also like to highlight the critical importance of modelling how we break the silence on mental health in the workplace as leaders. A senior partner in Accenture who leads a US$1bil business shared in a town hall his own experience with generalised anxiety disorder. Hsieh Fu Hua, a well known business luminary not only shared his own experience with his mental health challenge but also his experience as a caregiver to his daughter who lived with depression. I think coming forward and sharing your own experiences really speaks of a different level of leadership. Because you help open up the space of trust for your team members to know that if they have mental health difficulties, it doesn’t mean that they are less. I think we are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.

I will not go into the other aspect of structural stigma which is our mental healthcare system, especially our policy narratives in terms of affordability, accessibility and quality. I’ve spoken much on this in Parliament and they are all public information. But if you are keen, you can go to www.sgmentalhealthmatters for the findings of the public consultation that my volunteer and I did in preparation for Budget 2020.

Ok, now that I have scared you enough, I’d thought I’d share a little bit on how we identify mental health issues.

It is too easy to go about our busy lives and not notice symptoms of physical or mental illness. Our body has built-in warning systems which alert us to the signs that we need to pay attention to. What are the common warning signs? There are many lists out there but I thought these 5 are what I can most relate to, based on what I experienced personally and how I’ve been supporting my coaching clients and others: Long-lasting sadness or irritability; Extremely high and low moods; Excessive fear, worry, or anxiety, Social withdrawal; and Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits. Having said that, the symptoms of mental illnesses are not crystal clear, unlike those of the flu. They occur as a cluster of symptoms and have subtleties that only a trained mental health expert can identify and diagnose so always seek help if you are not sure, whether for yourself or for your loved ones.

That night some 14 years ago now, 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. At 39 years old, I was CEO no more, a wife no more, a full wallet no more. A broken tape recorder was playing in my head, recounting what I had lost.

And yet, 4 long hours after lying there on the floor, something strange happened. Maybe because I had lain so scarily still, the silence of my body finally overcame the chattering mind. This is why taking these quiet mental pauses like we did at the start of this conversation and also what the Hush sessions do is so important. Unless we stop the chatter in our minds, we are instinctively led to focus on what we lack, what we have lost — instead of focusing on what we have. The intentional practice of gratitude helps to tame that perfectionist, and that sense of entitlement in us.

So that was what I did, I focused on what I still had which I’m very convinced was what saved me that night. I overcame my shame and ego, sought help from family and friends, and saw a psychiatrist who deemed that my condition was not clinical. Please don’t get me wrong, I didn’t become ok overnight — the pain didn’t just go away, it was real and excruciating even as I slowly but surely climbed my way out of this deep dark hole because of the support system I had, and still have. Everyone deserves that but not everyone has that.

So ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to make mental wellbeing a strategic imperative in your workplace, it must be a leadership priority. If you are a leader, please don’t just leave it to your HR department, it’s more than policy and programmes. Everyone needs to be on board because it’s a deep cultural shift that needs to happen to reduce or remove the 3 levels of stigma I shared earlier — social stigma, self stigma and structural stigma. As leaders and managers, I hope you will always remember that ‘human’ comes before the term ‘human resources’ or ‘human capital’. As every employee is a member of society, how you look after their wellbeing not only directly impacts the performance of your business but also contributes to the kind of society that we want to live in, this is how you can make a difference. It’s not just the smart thing to do, but the right thing to do.

I would also like to take this opportunity to invite SICC to consider a Mental Wellbeing Chapter so you can share resources as I’ve seen in some of the other industry groups like lawyers.

My cousin summed up his lived experience with depression to me once,“it’s like treading water in the open seas with no shore in sight. I am fighting with myself every moment, every day.”

So here are three invitations for you to reframe before I wrap up because I could go on for hours on this topic.

First invitation: Instead of seeing persons with mental health issues as weak and vulnerable, we should see them as WARRIORS because they are battling with their own mind. Let’s see them not by the illness they have but by the strength and courage that they show us through this war they fight every day. And support them by listening to them, including and celebrating them. In one organisation I know, they call their mental health peer support teams Wellness Warriors.

Second invitation: When we feel stressed or depressed, instead of allowing shame and fear of judgement to take over, let’s ask ourselves 2 questions: “What new things am I learning here about myself?” and “Who and where can I ask for support?”. Because vulnerability is the only true gauge of strength, and asking for support allows others who care about you to do something to show that they care.

And the third invitation, and perhaps the most important one: How can you care more for yourself? Self-care is not selfish. It’s about giving the world the best of you, not what’s left of you. We have heard this many times — we can’t pour from an empty cup, so be kind to yourself. You can experience that self care later with the Hush team too.

Thank you for listening. As a leadership coach, I would dishonour my professional code if I do not check you out. So, could you please go to mentimeter and share how you feel now as we check out?

Will leave you with this slide. Find time for you and for those who matter. 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.

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