Lack of support for employee mental wellbeing is still a worldwide issue in 2022. Yet, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, that deficiency is most pronounced in Asia. But what are the issues in Southeast Asia in particular, and how should employers respond? The 10th of October was #WorldMentalHealthDay and in this post, we take a look at the importance of mental wellbeing at work and how support can be provided by organisations.
Mental Health in Southeast Asia
According to a recent McKinsey survey, Asian countries have been hit hard by burnout and poor mental health outcomes, especially post-Covid. It revealed that while, globally, roughly one in four employees are experiencing symptoms of burnout, that figure is closer to one in three for Asia.
Female employees and frontline workers are especially affected – reporting higher levels of burnout, symptoms of depression, and distress than the global average (along with higher levels of those symptoms than male employees, a common phenomenon worldwide).
‘With more than a quarter of employees reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, it’s clear that a real and pressing workplace challenge faces the region’ – Mckinsey
The Impact of Poor Mental Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy approximately US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity. WHO also predicts that mental health problems will be the leading disease in terms of morbidity and mortality, costing in excess of US$6 trillion per year, by 2030.
The impact of poor mental health is significant. McKinsey found that poor workplace mental health can lead to costly organisational issues including absenteeism, lower engagement, decreased productivity and increased insurance costs.
Indeed, in a recent Asia-wide study by the City Mental Health Alliance of Hong Kong (CMHAHK), 83% of responders reported going to work despite poor mental health. Of these, 76% reported that their performance on those days was sub-standard. According to CMHAHK, mental health issues are projected to reduce economic growth in India and China by more than $9 trillion between 2016 and 2030.
A focus on Malaysia and Singapore
A 2022 study by Milieu Insight of 3,000 employees across Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, found that only 57% of Singaporeans rated their mental health to be ‘good’, ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’, compared to 68% in Indonesia and 78% in the Philippines.
This suggests that Singaporean workers are experiencing some of the worst mental health across Southeast Asia, with local employees surveyed claiming the lowest levels of engagement, job satisfaction, and overall quality of life.
According to Channel News Asia the problem is driven by a burnout culture in the City State;
‘In a CNA-commissioned survey of mental health across six Asian societies during the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore was the only place where burnout was the leading factor affecting mental health. This bucked the trend seen in the other places in the survey, where most people pointed to public measures to keep the pandemic under control, such as restrictions on mask-wearing and travel, and financial burden from the loss of income.’
Turning to Malaysia; according to WHO, roughly one in three adults have a mental health condition in the country.
In 2019, an AIA Vitality survey reported that the Malaysian workforce was sleep deprived and overworked, with 51% of them suffering from at least one dimension of work-related stress and 53% getting less than seven hours of sleep per day. This year The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) started calling for greater collaboration among employers, government, and trade unions in order to address ‘alarming mental health issues’ in workplaces.
What are the causes of poor mental health?
There are many workplace issues that lead to mental health problems. According to the McKinsey survey, the prevalent (in Asia) being a toxic work environment, lack of inclusivity and belonging and unrealistic work expectations.
Problems have also arisen as a result of the isolation caused by remote working and the pandemic, fears of contamination and infection and an inability to access basic mental health support during lockdown. And if these issues aren’t always the direct causes, they can be compounding factors that push the pre-disposed or vulnerable into a poor mental health state.
As Oliver Tonby, Senior Partner at McKinsey, noted in his LinkedIn article last year;
‘The past year of coping with the pandemic has revealed a lot about mental health. For me, one of the most important insights has been that mental well-being is a continuum. We all exist somewhere on that continuum, from a place of languishing to a place of flourishing. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly exacerbated existing mental health challenges, and it has also pushed many more people to a place on that continuum where they are experiencing distress’.
Tonby makes the point that there is growing recognition that mental health isn’t just about clinically-diagnosed conditions or substance abuse. Rather, anxiety, depression, burnout and stress can also get to the point where they become totally disabling to the individual and can be both chronic and recurring conditions.
‘…mental health is relevant to all of us; we are all likely to be affected – directly or indirectly – at one time or another’.
Asia’s compounding factors
Last month, Datuk Dr. Syed Hussain Syed Husman, president of The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), spoke to Human Resources Director magazine. He said that mental health remains the least spoken issue in Malaysian workplaces.
‘…the effect of this is that issue of mental health most likely remains undetected or [managed] properly at the workplace. This issue is also compounded by the stigma attached to mental health that is often equated to madness, as commonly understood by the society and employees. Due to poor understanding of mental health, it is often regarded as taboo to talk about mental health and to seek professional help.’
Given the long-hours and always-on work culture in both Malaysia and Singapore, we can clearly see the two main mental health challenges – stigma and overwork.
The McKinsey study corroborates this, revealing that 86.5% of employees in Singapore do not seek help for their mental health because of the stigma around it - stigma and shame due to lack of awareness or to traditional beliefs.
The other compounding factor is a lack of resources – with fewer local firms offering mental health support as part of wellbeing packages compared to international firms, and lower quality national mental health services compared to much more expensive private services. And even in the private sector, coverage for mental health issues is still very patchy.
What can firms do to improve?
In tackling this issue in the workplace, employers need to take a look at a broad set of factors that influence employee mental health, ranging across culture, operations, employee conduct and even structural, as risk factors for poor mental health can include high stress, long work hours, bad managers, lack of control, lack of work flexibility, bullying and lack of escape spaces or relaxation areas within the workplace itself.
The American Psychological Association recommends five ways to improve employee mental health, namely:
1. Train managers to promote health and well-being
Consider training managers in skill sets that support mental health and positive relationships. Research shows that even minimal training can significantly improve attitudes to, and motivation to provide, support for mental health. Managers should also monitor their teams for employees who may be struggling and be well informed regarding the support avenues within the business. Create an open discussion about mental health so that the issue can step out from the shadows.
2. Increase employees’ options for where, when, and how they work
In an October 2021 Gallup poll, 54% of (US) employees working remotely said they would like to divide their time between home and office and 37% say they want to keep working from home full time. Maybe it’s time for Asia to shift from presenteeism to a results-based model of productivity measurement.
3. Re-examine health insurance policies with a focus on employee mental health
For many employees, benefits that promote well-being are more important than ever. According to a February 2022 Gallup poll, 61% of (US) employees cite work-life balance and better personal well-being as ‘very important’ when choosing and employer. Employees are looking to employers for support – and increasingly this rings true for Asia as well, when the only real access to proper mental health support is through the private sector funded by employer wellness schemes.
4. Listen to what your employees need and use their feedback to evolve
Almost half of all employees say lack of involvement in decisions contributes to stress in the workplace (APA, October 2021). In fact, significant research suggests that when employees feel included in decisions, they’re more likely to remain in those jobs. The psychological benefits are especially boosted when leaders not only ask for employee feedback but also use it to inform their decisions in an open way.
5. Take a critical look at equity, diversity, and inclusion policies
Providing an inclusive and equitable work environment is essential to fostering a psychologically healthy workplace and supporting the mental well-being of employees. Experiences of inequity and discrimination are highly connected to stress and cause people to leave their jobs – and this is especially true in Asia, as borne out by the McKinsey research.
Finally, employers should think about the workplace itself. Is there room to breathe, to find a personal space and to relax, maybe even socialise? Having the ability to ‘come up for air’ helps to prevent the impression that your workplace is suffocating and oppressive.
The future for Asia
It is reassuring that the issue of mental wellbeing in the workplace is now being properly discussed at all levels across both Singapore and Malaysia. We can certainly hope to see some improvements in the near future, most likely led by international organisations, but also aided and supported at the local levels by changing government policies.
At the same time, it’s important that we take measures to look after ourselves and each other and collaborate as a community to support those experiencing mental difficulties and to push for better region-wide mental health policies in employment.
We hope you found this article interesting and we’d also like to take this opportunity to wish all our clients and colleagues as very Happy Deepavali 2022.