Surekha Ragavan
Oct 21, 2020

Employee mental health: Why the industry needs to act now

Organisational leaders in Asia are still doubtful about the tangible returns of investing in employee mental health. A psychologist weighs in.


If the industry doesn’t consistently check in on the emotional health of its people, the industry could face a future of mental health issues not limited to depression and mass burnout.

Based on Campaign’s recent study with Kantar, more than half of respondents feel very stressed at work (57%) and find it challenging to manage stress in their lives (40%). This is not limited to psychological impact as 46% say work has impacted their physical health negatively, causing them to lose sleep and feel more lethargic (55%).

But to begin with, is employee mental health a critical enough agenda in the workplace?

Evelyn Chue is a certified practitioner in emotional intelligence assessments and founder of Eunoia (mental health service for organisations and individuals) and People Psyence (psychometric assessment specialist). She says that employers in Asia don’t bear a lack of awareness, but rather, a lack of commitment to investing in mental health support for their employees.

“Many people do approach me which means that they’re aware that their employees require some sort of support right now,” says Chue. “But when it comes to looking at actually investing, they might say ‘the priority should be the business first’.”

This is especially prevalent when a business is on survival mode or urgently chasing a bottom line. A result of this is that mental health is often pushed to the wayside, and employers might assume that staff are capable of sorting things out by themselves. Covid may have perpetuated some of these underlying issues, says Chue.

“I chat to employees daily about their psychometric assessment reports. And I realise that a lot of people were burning out, and when probed further, they might share personal challenges at work or at home. People are willing to share, but they don’t know how to resolve it,” she says.

Evelyn Chue

A common HR offering in organisations are employee assistance programmes (EAP), a benefit system that offers support for employee well-being. But one conundrum, Chue says, is doubt about confidentiality and trust. 

Employees might feel afraid to make use of workplace support as they might be identified as ‘problematic’ or a ‘black sheep’ in the company. Another issue is fear that personal issues might be leaked to managers, or that the ‘data’ might be used against them.

“Communication plans are very important here. Employers should communicate that the programme is there for support if needed. If this is done poorly, employees will feel doubt,” says Chue. “Leaders should make it clear that everybody's going through a very stressful time, and that everyone is in this game together.”

Chue adds that it’s vital these programmes be branded as more of a preventive measure rather than a treatment. In this part of the world, asking for help is still stigmatised and may be culturally frowned upon, and to o address this, Chue suggests that employees should be encouraged to get a ‘taste’ of therapy to start.

“I try and get them to understand that talking to a therapist or counsellor is actually just like a brisk walk. Similar to how you would see a doctor for a check-up,” she says.

One suggestion from Chue to make mental health an organisation-wide development is to get selected individual employees trained up to be mental first aiders. EAPs are often spearheaded by HR, but she argues that anyone could be a mental first aider if they demonstrate empathetic qualities to begin with. A first aider is someone who is qualified to observe behaviours and detect red flags; however, they shouldn’t be encouraged to diagnose or give out advice.

“Anyone who thinks that they care for their colleagues could sign up to be a mental first aider. These skills can be applied not just within an organisation, but even for family members or friends. You may notice certain symptoms already, and you could propose to your siblings, maybe, about talking to someone,” says Chue.

The problem in some organisations, she adds, is that HR practitioners may be equipped to roll out deep and complex executional plans, but are not always qualified as a mental first aider. Some organisations, meanwhile, might hire an in-house psychologist. It’s not widely practiced in Asian companies but the concept of confiding in an in-house staff still poses issues of trust and confidentiality among employees.

> Campaign-Kantar survey proves worsening mental health in industry 

Then comes the word that is often thrown about—sometimes callously—these days: mindfulness. It’s not unusual for an organisation to implement mindfulness programmes that include yoga or meditation, but Chue says this doesn’t mean employers should simply wipe their hands clean off pre-existing mental health issues.

The problem here is that mindfulness instructors are not always clinically trained, and may draw on their ‘rich life experiences’ as a trainer.

“They might have the compassion to run a programme like that, but getting clinically certified is a long process,” says Chue. “The danger is assuming that anyone can implement mindfulness training. I hope they know what they're doing; it's so much more than just playing soothing music and replicating techniques.”

To improve buy-in from employees, top management should be the ones steering messaging around mental health, Chue says. And if this isn’t done urgently, they could begin to lose its people.

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