Mental Health at the Workplace: It’s Time We Started Talking About it

It isn’t just a personal problem, it’s a business one. And it’s up to each of us to speak up for the sake of a happier, more productive workforce. 

Let’s face it, talking about mental health is uncomfortable. But when it comes to talking about mental health at the workplace, it’s even worse. As sufferers, if we declare it, we’re scared we won’t get hired, be undermined, or treated as an outcast. As employers, we probably assume people will ‘deal with it’, be ‘professional’ and not bring their ‘problems’ to work. 

As uncomfortable as it is for everyone involved, now more than ever, with 1 in every 7 Singaporeans being likely to face a mental health issue in their lifetime, we need to start talking about it – at work. And here’s how it could actually help:

Talking helps create an inclusive work culture that inspires and retains talent

In her Internet-breaking TEDx talk on ‘The power of Vulnerability’, Brené Brown said, “No one reaches out to you for compassion or empathy so you can teach them how to behave better. They reach out to us because they believe in our capacity to know our darkness well enough to sit in the dark with them.”

For many people, the way they are treated by leaders in the organisation makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work. Showing support by sharing personal struggles, or encouraging others to talk about theirs, helps create an environment of acceptance and provides inspiration for those who believe success is out of their reach if they have a mental health condition.

Mr. Hsieh Fu Hua, former UOB chairman, started become aware of his responsibility to speak up as a leader in 2000, when his daughter was diagnosed with depression. As chief executive of the Singapore Exchange, at a time when the company was going through restructuring, he ensured employees had access to counsellors to deal with the emotional distress the situation would inevitably cause. As a leader, he’s even been transparent about his own struggle with post-trauma stress after losing his dog in a sudden accident.

Mr. John Flint, former CEO of HSBC bank, shared this in an effort to create the ‘healthiest human system’ at the bank: “I know personally the profound difference between being at my best and not at my best. We know that fear is terribly important when it comes to decision-making.” Through starting a dialogue with the bank’s 238,000 employees across 55 countries, Mr. Flint observed, “…those who have recovered often possess a resilience and a resourcefulness, and an interest in human nature, an empathy and an EQ which most of us don’t possess. I regard the survivors as an absolute asset.”

Through leading by example, we create a work culture that everyone wants to be a part of, support, and stay loyal to. 

Talking helps sufferers stop undermining themselves

Many sufferers are a victim of self-stigma, inducing the ‘why-try’ effect which dissuades them from pursuing opportunities because of low self-esteem. Talking about mental health at work helps legitimise the problem for sufferers, empowering them to open up and deal with the problem in a constructive way, so they can realise their full potential.  

When Ms Lyn Lee was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, triggered by losing her father to cancer and her 18 year marriage ending in divorce, she felt safe sharing her condition with her employer, Royal Dutch Shell. Today, she’s the company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. Of the experience, she says,If I were in a different company where I felt like if I said something, I would lose my job, that would have been different… I probably would have continued to struggle. You need… an environment where having time for yourself and recharging is not seen as a penalty.”

The more we talk about mental health, the more we normalise it, and the more success stories we will have to celebrate. 

Talking helps improve our profitability

The more we neglect the need to address mental health at the workplace, the more the problem festers and manifests itself as stress-related illnesses – ranging from depression and anxiety disorders, to musculoskeletal issues, to medically unexplained chest pains, and to gastro disturbances. 

These stress-related illnesses cost Singapore’s economy about S$3.2 billion a year, and forms about 18 per cent of the country’s total health expenditure, according to an inaugural study. 

Imagine the difference it would make if we took active steps to encourage people to open up about mental health. 

Talking creates a happier workplace today… and tomorrow

Given that 1 in every 7 Singaporean will likely be impacted by mental health issues in their lifetime, the problem clearly isn’t just going to go away. We need to start addressing the issue for the well-being of those who suffer today, so there are fewer who suffer tomorrow.  

Talking about mental health at work is a simple first step. But to make a sustainable difference, we need to have a more planned approach for which this Mental Health Toolkit for Employers is immensely useful. 

While changing attitudes is no easy task, especially with a subject as sensitive as mental health, we have to start somewhere. Let’s start by talking about it. 

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