Employees' mental health is in the secret sauce for that competitive edge
Organisations cannot hope to be sustainable without looking after the safety, health and welfare of their most vital resource - their employees.
COVID-19 has exerted unprecedented pressure on individuals' mental health and well-being across all levels of the community and corporations. What was largely an invisible issue that was seldom talked about is enjoying a moment in the limelight: Mental health and wellness is now a topic that is clearly in the national and corporate consciousness.
In a recent survey that The Straits Times and market research firm Milieu Insight conducted on the impact of the pandemic, 76 per cent of the 1,000 respondents polled online expressed feeling sad or depressed, and 65 per cent feeling lonely.
It is therefore heartening that many corporate webinars and conferences are addressing mental health issues ranging from anxieties connected with the pandemic, mental health pressures brought about by a lack of downtime from work, and significantly reduced in-person interaction that is the consequence of extensively working from home. These challenges have affected all equally - from leaders to the rank-and-file.
The most recent five-year Singapore Mental Health Survey conducted in 2016 listed the top three mental health conditions - depression, alcohol abuse and obsessive compulsive disorder. It took one year, four years, and 11 years respectively for sufferers of these conditions to seek treatment.
Among the reasons for the delay were a lack of awareness, difficulty in speaking openly about the struggles, and the stigma attached to those who mustered the courage to be open about the problem.
The positive attention that mental health currently enjoys is a good development that should be cheered. This allows the topic to be talked about with greater openness, thus normalising the conversation; it is hoped that this would shorten the time taken for sufferers of all mental health conditions to reach out for help and support.
WORKPLACE MENTAL HEALTH
In business, sustainable corporations strive to balance the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit to achieve long-term success and viability. This means that organisations cannot be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and welfare of their most vital resource - their employees.
Sustainability is not just about what is done, but how it gets done. It is a mindset that requires leadership setting and achieving goals beyond mere regulatory compliance. Organisations around the world have embraced sustainability as an avenue to showcase their values and purpose, measure impacts and outcomes, and increase their competitive advantage. However, workplace health, in particular, mental health and wellness, is often under-emphasised, or overlooked completely.
It is noteworthy that the importance of workplace mental health and well-being was highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO) as far back as a decade ago. In its 2010 Healthy Workplace Framework report, WHO emphasised that attention needs to be paid by corporations to psycho-social issues, worklife balance and, in particular, mental health issues and their impact on the safety and health of the workforce.
Since then, ISO 45003, the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace, has been established. This provides guidance on the management of psycho-social risk, as part of an organisation's occupational health and safety management system. The standard includes information on how to recognise the psycho-social hazards that can affect workers, such as those that arise from working from home. It provides examples of effective - often simple - actions that can be taken to manage these challenges and improve employees' overall wellbeing. In the same vein, there is an increasing lobby for workplace mental wellness indices to be introduced and incorporated into established sustainability frameworks, as a way to track a corporation's overall sustainability journey in mental health - all part of achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).
As we enter a second year of the pandemic, frequent lockdowns and movement restrictions are taking their toll on the employee population. With limited social contact and often less-than-ideal home working conditions, many struggle to cope with the new realities of daily life. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the number of adults in the US suffering from anxiety or depression has jumped fourfold in the 18 months prior to December 2020.
If organisations are only as good as their people, it follows that improving workplace mental health should be top of the corporate agenda. Just as corporations ingrain sustainable practices into their supply chains while increasing their social responsibility efforts as part of their ESG efforts, they should not overlook a key element that weaves a connected thread between these key initiatives: The mental health of their employee teams.
The pandemic has radically shifted the focus of corporates, as employers are now more employee-centric than ever. As companies transition to the next normal, those who realise that employee well-being is critical to sustaining businesses for the long term will be ones that thrive and excel in the marketplace. In this respect, the sustainability elements of people and planet are inextricably linked.
The challenge is how businesses can purposefully incorporate the subject of workplace mental health into their core sustainability agenda, rather than treat it as a separate issue.
Employers play an integral role in supporting their employees' mental well-being. Progressive corporations in the US have taken concrete steps in this space.
US telecoms giant AT&T leveraged its influence to support its employees' mental health by working with NAMI, the biggest grassroots mental health charity in the US. Through its subsidiary Warner Media, it connected (and recruited) some celebrities to create a public service message that "it's ok to not feel ok".
They also collaborated with Mindright Health, which incubates educational technology solutions, to connect individuals suffering from anxiety and depression with the support they need.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Health's Office of Healthcare Transformation (MOHT) has launched Mindline At Work, supporting employees, leaders and human resource teams to strengthen mental well-being and resilience of employees at the workplace. This digital platform, accessible 24/7, is in response to the global trend towards digital solutions supporting mental wellness.
Digital is seen as the future of mental healthcare by experts here and around the world - where digital apps, AI bots, online self-help and helplines play an integral role. These solutions are a resource that can be tapped to accelerate the mental health interventions and responses.
Digital solutions also allow for real-time data that provide valuable insights to corporations on employee wellness - such as the number of employees who access mental wellness resources, unique users and returning users. Besides knowing what mental health and wellness resources employees most frequently access, it also enables companies to gauge the prevailing mood of the organisation - such as positive, anxious, sad, tired, frustrated - so that appropriate actions can be taken.
In the first half of 2020, funding of global mental health startups attracted investments exceeding S$1 billion. Financially savvy leaders are likely to ask what the return is on such capital commitments. The answer is compelling: Corporations that integrate workplace mental health best practices into their operating model (including their organisational culture), bring together valuable workplace mental health research, organisational design and change management that positively impact their employees. Taking such actions can significantly bolster both employee mental health and job satisfaction - which can only be good for business. This positive return is validated by research: In a 2017 study, the UK Department of Health and Social Care estimates a return of 4.25x ROI for every dollar invested in the mental health space.
BUILDING THE FUTURE
The success of workplace mental health programmes and support lies in the existence of "journey partners" in corporations and the larger community - from corporate leaders who set the tone from the top, to employees who initiate ground-up initiatives. Corporations need to recognise that investing in the mental health and wellness of their employee population is not just another "CSR-type" investment which is good for "PR reputational" purposes.
On the contrary, it is important for corporations to reach out to their employee community to talk about what is important to their workforce, a key stakeholder. When it comes to addressing mental health issues as part of a wider corporate strategy, mental health, like sustainability, is a journey: As corporations learn more, they can do more and consequently benefit more (both their employees and the corporation) - thus creating a virtuous cycle.
One thing is certain - mental health as a priority is here to stay. The workplace, where employees spend a large part of their days, allows employers the ability to positively impact their workforce's mental health and wellness, which brings with it the many business and sustainability benefits described above.
Corporations that are quick to recognise this opportunity and invest in it will build sustainable businesses, thrive in the next normal, and rise to the top of the competition.
- The writer is the group general counsel and chief sustainability officer of Jardine Cycle & Carriage, a member of the Jardine Matheson Group. He is also the CEO of mental health charity Jardine MINDSET and serves on the boards of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, City Mental Health Alliance Singapore and the Global Guiding Council of One Mind.
- Jardine Matheson and Jardine MINDSET were this week awarded the Organisations of Good award at the Singapore President's Voluntarism and Philanthropy Award 2021 for their contributions over the past decade to the Singapore mental health community.
Source: Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.