SINGAPORE: The problem of mental health among employees in Singapore is real.

Four in 10 Singaporeans had gross misconceptions and therefore prejudices about persons with mental health conditions.

These were but some of the findings in the Attitudes Study on Persons with Mental Health conditions by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) in 2018. The same study also found that nearly one in two Singaporeans are unwilling to work with colleagues facing mental health issues.

The Singapore Mental Health Survey 2016 revealed that the rate of unemployment among those with at least one mental disorder was 8.3 per cent which was significantly higher than the 4.8 per cent rate of unemployment in those without mental illness.

STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

In December 2019, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices announced (TAFEP) updated its guidelines to employers that asking job applications to declare their mental health conditions without good reason is discriminatory – a move that many had advocated for many years, which I also echoed in my maiden speech in Parliament in November 2018. 

Last week at the Committee of Supply debate, in response to my and other MPs’ questions, the Ministry of Manpower announced that a tripartite advisory on mental well-being will be issued in the second half of this year to educate employers on what could be done.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 – time for businesses and workers to have the guts to embrace the new normal

Despite these steps in the right direction, many have asked me to talk about the elephant in the room: Are these efforts and measures enough to make employers hire and retain persons with mental health issues? Yes, because there are real benefits to doing so.

Today, evidence shows that investing in workplace mental well-being is not only the right thing but also the smart thing to do as it improves productivity and long-term business sustainability.

A 2017 survey of 505 companies by NCSS found that for every S$1 invested in workplace adjustment (like flexible work arrangements, job redesign, peer training) to support persons recovering from mental health conditions, it generated an average return of S$5.60 through a reduction in absenteeism and medical claims as well as an increase in productivity.

In fact, I think the real elephant in the room is this: With one in seven people in Singapore experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime, employers know they cannot pretend that mental health and well-being is someone else’s problem because part of our workforce will have to grapple with mental health conditions while under employment.

One in seven people in Singapore will be experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetimes. File photo. (Photo: TODAY/Nuria Ling)

With young adults most at risk of suffering from mental disorders in Singapore as reported in the Singapore Mental Health Study, hiring and talent retention practices must clearly evolve now to support these millennial employees so that businesses can thrive in the future economy.

COMMUNITY INITIATIVES

There has been a groundswell of community efforts in recent years to raise and promote awareness of mental health.

READ: Commentary: Workers in the gig economy feel lonely, anxious and powerless

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Beyond the Label, an anti-stigma campaign launched by NCSS in 2018, helped start a much needed national conversation on mental health.

Recognising that leaders play a key role in integrating well-being in their company because they shape the company’s culture, 25 C-suite leaders from public and private sectors joined me to start the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup (WLW) in May 2018 to share, discuss and co-create fair and inclusive practices to support employee mental health as a strategic priority.

Many wonder how employers would view them if they come forward to share their mental health challenges. I think there is nothing more powerful in creating a safe and destigmatising environment than bosses and leaders taking the first step to share their own mental health journeys.

Accenture, a WLW leader, is a trailblazer in creating such psychological safety in their workplaces. Sharing his own story of coping with anxiety, Senior Partner Pavan Sethi certainly led by example and helped create a space of trust for his team members to understand that should they face mental health difficulties, they aren’t any less valued.

Here are some examples from a handful of our WLW leaders on how they employ and support persons with mental health conditions:

At Johnson & Johnson, “mental health diplomats” are employees with lived experiences of mental conditions and allies who encourage peer-to-peer conversations about mental health and well-being.

At Aviva and the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), they have in place necessary coaching, counselling and peer support structures alongside flexible work arrangement policies for employees who live with mental health conditions.

READ: About 1,000 firms suspected of discriminatory hiring practices, placed on Government watchlist

NCSS is a pioneer in Singapore with training 22 wellness warriors in mental health first aid to be “first respondents” for distressed colleagues. It has also produced a Mental Health Toolkit for Employers.

EMPLOYERS NEED A PARADIGM SHIFT

Small and medium-sized enterprises need to be, in my view, even more progressive and adaptive in their attraction and retention strategies, given the local talent war with larger employers and reducing dependence on foreign manpower.

Hush TeaBar was founded to promote mental wellness and empathy with silence and tea in workplaces, out of my own brush with depression when my world collapsed around me 13 years ago. The team is made up entirely of seven differently-abled employees – Deaf persons and persons who live with mental health conditions and learning difficulties.

Anthea Ong Hush TeaBar

Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong (second from left) with Hush TeaBar staff (in green) at one of their diversity sessions. (Photo: Facebook/Hush TeaBar)

For almost two years now, the team has been running all projects for large MNCs and schools, even creating our current campaign to distribute our specially designed self-care kits to healthcare workers, completely on their own. Yes, we have had to make many workplace adjustments and job redesign but I see that as precious lessons in adaptability and innovation as Hush continues to thrive with these dedicated and resilient employees who are able to fulfill their true potential. 

READ: Commentary: Decriminalising attempted suicide in Singapore does not mean less help for vulnerable people

Minister of State for Manpower and National Development Zaqy Mohamad mentioned in parliament last week pilots and police officers as professions in which good mental health is important. Some may even say that for jobs like doctors, teachers and bus drivers we must surely insist on good mental health as a prerequisite.

Yet this is the paradigm shift we need to make. Mental health is not just good or bad, nor now or never – it is a continuum because our environment and life events play a significant role in our mental wellbeing. 

We mustn’t forget that “human” comes first when we talk about human resources or human capital.

Former CEO of the HSBC Group John Flint started a very progressive conversation with the bank’s 238,000 employees across 55 countries on how to be the best version of themselves. Among those who have gone through mental health conditions, John learnt that “they are the ones who often possess a resilience, a resourcefulness, an empathy and an EQ that the rest do not possess”.

I cannot agree more. Resilient companies are built from resilient employees, and every employee is a member of our society.

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, Member of the Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Safety & Health, Founder of WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, Hush TeaBar, A Good Space and formerly held senior leadership positions in various MNCs. She is also Author of 50 Shades of Love (www.antheaong.com)

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