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New possibilities for well-being at work

It is time for leaders to commit to making workplaces a source of positive mental health for employees.

It's a bitter pill to swallow, but as leaders, we contribute to a culture that is still unsafe to share vulnerabilities or does not encourage people to seek help.

A SINGLE mother who has to care for her young boy and elderly mother, has had her salary first cut by 50 per cent and another recent reduction that left her with only 25 per cent of her original salary.

A small business owner shared his deep despair over having to retrench 80 per cent of his staff, some of whom have been with him for over 20 years. A leader of a public service agency was overwhelmed with anxiety and guilt when he had to deploy his team members to the frontline for Covid-19 assignments.

Every year since 1992, Oct 10 has marked World Mental Health Day. The experiences above, shared firsthand with me, show that the annual reminder is more necessary now than ever before, with mental health at the workplace facing unprecedented challenges.

Going from split-team arrangements to working from home since the circuit-breaker announcement have created disruptions to employers and employees alike. As companies struggle with the devastating economic impact of this pandemic, a study by human resources (HR) company Profile Asia in April found that nearly one in two of those working in Singapore reported that Covid-19 has adversely affected their mental health.

According to Mercer's 2020 Global Talent Trends Study in May, even though 61 per cent of employees trust their employer to look after their well-being and 48 per cent of executives rank it as a top workforce concern, only 29 per cent of HR leaders have a health and well-being strategy.

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Mental health is a complex challenge, even more so during a global pandemic, and complex problems require adaptive leadership. Beyond HR policies and programmes, how can we, as leaders, imagine new possibilities for well-being at work, especially in the face of Covid-19?

What do your followers need from you, leaders?

First, what is the personal change that we would commit to make as leaders in supporting the mental health of our employees? Our reflex response is often to look at solutions outside of ourselves, but what if we are the solution?

It's a bitter pill to swallow, but as leaders, we contribute to a culture that is still unsafe to share vulnerabilities or does not encourage people to seek help.

Progressive employers may take a step further - focusing on downstream measures or secondary interventions like Employee Assistance Programme, counselling therapy, stress management or mindfulness training.

Countless leadership models focus on a leader's role as setting visions and priorities, driving strategies, influencing others and making things happen. But Gallup's extensive and ongoing research across 10,000 employees worldwide found that what followers need from their leaders are quite different from what leaders think they should be.

These needs are: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Meeting these four needs, especially in the face of Covid-19, is a critical upstream, primary intervention.

This is hard to do because we have to change ourselves. What or who do we need to be to build trust, show compassion, provide stability and inspire hope? What makes us lose sight of these as leaders? How can we care for ourselves more to make the change needed for our people?

In July, I brought together 70 C-Suite leaders across the public, private and people sectors for a dialogue on precisely these questions. The dialogues were organised by the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, which has championed mental health as a strategic priority at the workplace since May 2018.

These closed-door dialogues help provide a safe space for leaders to share, learn and take action on mental health. For example, both DBS Group CEO Piyush Gupta and Chair of NUS Board of Trustees Hsieh Fu Hua shared their personal experiences with mental health difficulties at the most recent dialogues.

Change requires courage. Coming forward and sharing our own experiences help open up that space of trust for our employees to know that having mental health difficulties does not mean they are less.

By doing so, we help break the stigma, give hope and encourage help-seeking. We also become better leaders in the process as we become more aware of who we are and why or how we lead.

What if workplaces are a source of positive mental health for society?

Instead of accepting that the workplace is the cause of stress, anxiety and mental ills, could we reframe it is a source of positive mental health for our society instead?

I'm not referring to billiard tables and well-stocked pantries, commendable as they are in instilling fun at the workplace and creating a sense of community.

I'm challenging us to shift our paradigm from incremental workplace adjustments to seeing every employee as a whole person, beyond what they do and who they are in the workplace.

In other words, how can we proactively support every employee in the different roles that they play in their families and communities, so that they leave work with the best of themselves to give to their world, not what's left of them? This means they are in the best state of mental health when they are with their loved ones because of their time at work and the workplace.

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe not. Some of the CEOs I know are beginning to embrace this mental wellbeing paradigm shift. They focus on the "human" part of human resources and human capital.

At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown when schools moved online, one large multinational energy company started providing workshops on home-schooling skills and specific counselling support for employees with young children, including the children. They plan to continue this beyond Covid-19 with parenting capacity programmes for new parents and parents with young children.

A global consulting firm has also begun designing and implementing comprehensive support structures for employees who are caregivers of elderly with special needs.

Coming to work becomes a source of positive mental health for these employees as the workplace supports them to better show up for the other aspects of their lives, beyond work.

A recent study in the January/February 2020 issue of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry confirmed that respondents who believed they had meaning in their life had better physical and mental health scores and higher cognitive function compared with those who didn't.

A poem by Khalil Gibran is titled Work Is Love Made Visible. I see this to mean that we should be able to define our work as a visible product of our personal passion.

This does not mean we necessarily have our dream jobs, but it does mean that we can carve out the space in what we do to express our passion within the workplace. In other words, how can we enable employees to realise, beyond career goals, their deeper human aspirations of meaning and purpose?

Reimagining ourselves as leaders, and reframing our workplaces as positive mental health spaces - these may seem audacious and impertinent goals right now. But as Albert Einstein said, we cannot solve the problem with the same way of thinking that created it in the first place.

Recall that flexible work arrangements once seemed impossible or unproductive for various reasons. A tiny virus has since shown us that it's impossible until it's done.

Every employee is also a member of our society. On this World Mental Health Day, I hope leaders commit to well-being as a fundamental responsibility by seeing ourselves as part of the solution to making workplaces a source of positive mental health.

This is a grand opportunity to boldly pivot in this regard because how we lead through disruptions in the face of Covid-19 will determine how we support our employees and organisations - and therefore our society, to emerge stronger, and build back better.

  • The writer is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur (WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, Hush TeaBar and A Good Space), professional certified coach, and author of 50 Shades Of Love. She is also a member of the Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Safety and Health.

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