COVID-19 has exacerbated an invisible health crisis, that of mental health issues in the workplace. Work practices implemented to adapt to this new normal, such as work-from-home and split-team arrangements, have left people struggling to adapt, feeling isolated and disconnected, and further blurred the lines between home and work. A recent Qualtrics study revealed that over 40% of global employees, Singaporeans included, stated that their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak.
To alleviate the situation, a tripartite advisory on mental well-being at workplaces was jointly issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), to tackle the mental health needs of Singaporean workers in November 2020. However, calls to improve mental health awareness in the workplace are not new.
A Growing Concern
Before the start of the pandemic, several Members of Parliament (MPs) raised mental health issues arising from work as a real and ever-present danger, advocating for it to be included in the list of occupational diseases covered under the Work Injury Compensation Act. The MPs also acknowledged the need for coverage for the self-employed, and called for more efforts to educate workers, particularly low-wage foreign workers, about their rights to compensation. They suggested initiating further studies on the effects of workplace mental health issues and potential solutions.
A More Beneficial Proposition
Good workplace mental health is an attractive proposition for employees, employers and the bottom line. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
However, the situation can be salvaged. In a different report, WHO highlighted that for every US$1 invested into scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, which is the expansion of programmes or facilities to reach a larger population of mental illness sufferers, there is an estimated return of US$4 in improved health and productivity. Businesses need to come to terms with the growing importance of mental health awareness in the workplace and do their part. Not only is creating a mentally-healthy workplace environment the right thing to do, it makes perfect business sense. Employees are being empowered to be productive and motivated.
Challenges in the Way
The stigma surrounding workplace mental illness paints affected individuals as being less capable. To protect career progression, many avoid seeking treatment, and sweep mental issues under the carpet, leading to a debilitating cycle of stress and despair.
Businesses have their challenges as well. While larger companies may have the resources to adhere to the tripartite advisory guidelines, it could be challenging for Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to implement similar measures. For example, Jardine Cycle & Carriage has health coverage plans for employees that include mental health treatment, while Mediacorp offers emotional and mental wellness training, and a one-on-one confidential counselling service. These measures may not be financially feasible for SMEs.
The Ways Forward
There are several things we can do to improve our workspaces. Employers or bosses should take the lead in mental health discussions, as they are ultimately the ones who can shape these discussions positively. Notably, Piyush Gupta, Chief Executive Officer and Director of DBS Group, shared his struggles with mental wellness. In doing so, he sent an important message to employees of the organisation, that it is acceptable to seek help for mental health issues.
Companies can also explore making simple policy changes. For example, they can look into capping the number of virtual meetings and introducing mandatory breaks between sessions.
For individuals, they should recognise that negative emotions can be a learning experience and there are a plethora of resources to help them cope. These include government initiatives, hotlines and blogs. Furthermore, there are events like the Beyond the Label festival that creatively reshapes perceptions of mental illnesses.
The mental health of the workforce is just as crucial as physical health. While it may have taken a global pandemic to put this into perspective, we should capitalise on this greater appreciation of mental wellness in the workplace. This is how we can move towards building a healthier and more resilient workforce.
This article is an adaptation of the podcast Silver Linings #3.2: Mental Health At Work. The podcast features Dr Emily Ortega, (Head of Psychology Programmes at SUSS School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences), Padma Jairam (Senior Psychologist, Institute of Mental Health), and Debra Lum (Co-Founder, Society Staples), who discuss the differences between mental health and mental wellness, and how social media can be a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health issues. Listen to the podcast here.
 Qualtrics (APR 2020) The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Mental Health
 Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Tripartite advisory on mental well-being at workplaces
 The Straits Times (SEP 2019) MPs raise issue of coverage for workers with mental illnesses
 The Lancet Psychiatry Scaling-up treatment of depression and anxiety: a global return on investment analysis
 TODAY (NOV 2020) The Big Read: Enough is enough.
 The Straits Times (DEC 2020) I had acute anxiety: DBS' Piyush Gupta on past mental health struggles