Staff Reporters
Oct 8, 2021

What constitutes exemplary workplace mental-health support in 2021?

SOUNDING BOARD: We asked APAC industry insiders with different vantage points on the issue to tell us what a model mental-health effort looks like—and what's missing from current initiatives.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

With World Mental Health Day coming up on Sunday (October 10), it's a good time to assess the progress the advertising and marketing industry has made—or hasn't made—toward ensuring the well-being of its people. 

While we would hope that workplace wellbeing has always been a business priority, it has become especially critical during the pandemic, which has had severe repercussions on people's mental health.

How much are companies prioritising the issue, versus just recognising it as a PR opportunity and talking a good game? More to the point, what makes an exemplary mental health initiative in 2021, and how do you measure success?

To get a reading on how the industry is doing, we asked a series of APAC experts from varying vantage points to provide their perspective on what constitutes a model mental health initiative, and what is commonly missing.

What initiative/s have you seen in APAC that are exemplary at promoting mental health at work?

Sean Donovan, president, TBWA Asia

Some of the best ones that I have seen are those that try to take into account what’s happening at the edges of teams and conversations, the ones that go beyond the formal ‘official’ programme and try to implement the humanity and community we have and continue to miss.

These have been as simple as communicating in a way that reflects how you would outside of work:

  • Using informal WhatsApp or WeChat
  • Making time for social interaction at the start and end of meetings, that we have been denied since the advent of WFH
  • Implementing ways or building platforms to ensure we are listening to, hearing and then talking about the things that matter to our people—especially those that don’t always feel comfortable speaking in larger settings.

Serina Tan, founder, Brewer Consulting

Mental wellbeing continues to be a pressing issue for the PR industry, with the situation exacerbated by the continuing pandemic and work-from-home policies. Across the board it’s heartening to see more companies paying more attention to mental wellbeing. Best practices involve investing in leadership coaching and developing a formal mental wellbeing programme.

As we know emotional energy carries throughout the organisation so it’s essential that best practices for mental wellbeing start from the top. In fact, research from Harvard has shown that when leaders fail to manage stress, over 50% of employees perceive their leaders as ineffective leading them to lose their drive to advance with the company. But when leadership actively engages in mental wellbeing and stress management practices, such as mindfulness, the psychological capital of the organisation rises.

Mental wellbeing programmes can be scalable, depending on the organisation’s size and resources. Some areas to consider include:

  • Extending mental health training for both leaders and employees to be aware of “psychosocial hazards” so that they can recognise a problem before it develops. This allows them to help themselves and their colleagues.
  • Appoint and train mental wellbeing advocates.
  • Introduce a peer support programme.

Other than employee feedback surveys, one way to measure success over the mid to long-term is to compare healthcare costs/ sick leave days pre- and post-programming.

Xiuli Chin, clinical psychologist, Eunoia De Agape

Generally, we have seen a few key initiatives organised by the corporates that are helpful in enhancing workplace mental health such as talks and webinars that introduce basic mental health concepts and simple coping strategies to manage emotional distress.

Besides knowledge sharing, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) are designed to support employees in resolving personal problems (for example, financial, family, personal concerns) that have adverse impact on workplace performance. These might include counselling and psychotherapy services, capacity building trainings, career counselling, and so forth.

Apart from what we have seen in APAC, recently we have also applied a gamified approach to delivering mental wellness-related campaigns which successfully increased employee engagement throughout the series of activities and at the same time enhanced knowledge retention with positive employee experience.

Ingo Laubender, head of people, Foodpanda

Many workplaces are beginning to realise that building a resilient workforce starts with cultivating a positive mental health culture. However, I also noticed that most companies implement a top-down approach when rolling out mental health programmes.

I believe that the best way to support our employees is to offer personalised solutions that encourage them to take charge of their mental health journey at their own pace and comfort level. At the same time, we need to recognise that employees need convenient access to holistic healthcare for both their mental and physical well-being.

In April 2021, we introduced Intellect, a one-stop mental health support app for our employees which provides access to short guided sessions and regular tele-consultations with a local mental health expert in their communities. The app also complements other mental health resources such as our Employee Assistance Program. We recognise that our role as an organisation is to provide options that cater to a variety of needs in a convenient and accessible manner.

I hope that as leaders in our organisations, we can all work towards the same goal of destigmatising mental health at the workplace and building a safe and inclusive culture for all.

Porsche Poh, executive director, Silver Ribbon

As mental health is everyone’s business, it is encouraging to see that more agencies are:

  • Acknowledging the psychological impact of Covid-19 and importance of mental health promotion at workplace.
  • Coming forward to express their keen interest to do something for their staff.
  • Holding panel discussions, talks, workshops.
  • Commemorating World Mental Health Day on 10 October and/or in the month of October.

Adam Ferrier, chief thinker, Thinkerbell

It feels like at the moment many organisations are trying to outdo each other on their mental health credentials, initiatives, and programs. This race to outdo each other is a wonderful thing as it's providing better work environments for everyone. However, it's also somewhat missing the point. Our mental health is a response to the entire organisation we work in. The brand, the work, the workload, our co-workers, the culture, the vibe, the policies, the procedures—the whole bang lot. Mental health initiatives in many ways shouldn't be separated from how the business goes about doing things. Someone's mental health is a response to the whole thing, not any one initiative.

What’s missing from the initiatives you have seen?

Donovan

Firstly, it’s hard to criticise the intent and the fact that these initiatives are being deployed in an environment that continues to be unchartered for leaders. Many people are trying their very best, and to their credit mobilised quickly. But it’s important to move from enthusiastic-amateur led initiatives to allowing professionals to take over—from first responders into longer term care. There are many excellent service providers that have the training, expertise and scale to provide very holistic and deeply professional programmes for teams.

Tan

Many companies are instituting 'mental health days' and paid time off to help employees disconnect and combat burnout. Additionally, many have also expanded employee benefits to include access to mental health consultations and treatments, as well as mental well-being programmes.

There are a few caveats though. Despite an employer’s best intentions, mental health days may not fully achieve their intended benefits if employees are unable to fully disconnect due to client obligations. As such, managerial and team support would be crucial, together with self-discipline for employees to completely disconnect and spend their days to practice self care/relaxation. This can sometimes be challenging due to the “always on” nature of our work.

And because working from home has blurred the boundaries, management should take the lead to provide clarity on after-hours policy and provide guidelines to employees on how to achieve healthy separation between work and home life. Leaders need to take the lead. This might be a good opportunity for agencies to revisit their business model and client-servicing dynamics, so employees can work with more realistic expectations.

Chin

While there are many initiatives and corporates have invested a lot of effort in promoting mental wellness in the workplace, there are however several elements that are missing or less effective. To begin with, low awareness or take-up rate of mental health activities at the workplace results from lack of support from senior management or stakeholders who may rather prioritise business growth than mental health. This happens when mental health is not seen as an investment but rather a last resort when other interventions are not successful.

Businesses can also display stigmatised views of employees towards mental health matters due to lack of proper education. For example, businesses giving a higher priority to physical ailments rather than emotional distress, and employees finding that seeking external aids may drive negative perceptions of being seen as “mentally weak/disturbed” and potentially risking their career. Some even have a mindset that such initiatives are put in place for people who are in trouble therefore while the organisation has an interest in promoting mental health at workplace, they have to also give equal attention to breaking the stigma and position it as a prevention instead of cure. It’s bothering when trained and qualified mental health practitioners are less regarded as professionals, hence it is widely believed that they should not be paid as professionals.

Poh

While addressing the mental wellbeing of employees, it is also helpful to take note of employers’ mental wellbeing so that they would stay resilient, manage their emotions well, sustain their business and do more to support their employees. It is possible that some employers might be struggling with their issues during this challenging period or do not know how to get started. Hence, we will advise them to explore a partnership with a mental health organisation to learn more.

Ferrier

Our industry is meant to be championing creativity, and creativity and mental health have always been playful bedfellows. I'd like the industry to embrace the arts, art therapy, and self-expression through creativity as a more sincere way to support people and develop robust mental health. It's what we do, and the therapeutic benefits of creativity and the arts are well-documented.

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