IMH CEO: How to tackle the mental health crisis

Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health’s top psychiatrist shares simple tips to promote well-being

IMH CEO: How to tackle the mental health crisis

Last week, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) launched the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces.

The new advisory comes amidst a ‘mental health crisis’ exacerbated by the pandemic and offers leaders a practical guide to support workplace well-being. It was jointly released by NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

This has been a long time coming, after years of struggling to destigmatise an issue that has plagued many professionals in the city-state, which has frequently been called a ‘highly stressed out’ nation.

Read more: Almost 100% of Singaporeans are stressed at work

Some best practices recommended by the tripartite partners include:

  • Appointing ‘mental wellness champions’ to raise awareness on mental well-being and mental health conditions through talks and workshops
  • Providing access to counselling services such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to allow employees to seek help from a professional
  • Training managers to spot signs of mental distress in employees and refer them to avenues for help
  • Recognising the need for employees to have adequate rest outside work hours by establishing a work-life harmony policy. This should provide clarity on after-hours communications

Read more: McAfee CPO: ‘It’s okay to say NO to that 6pm call’

Establish formal HR policy to support well-being
The advisory offers recommendations ‘depending on your organisation’s readiness and available resources’ and that ‘would work best to support’ employees’ needs.

For instance, tackling well-being at the individual level through advocates, at the departmental level through leadership training, as well as at the organisational level through formal risk assessment surveys.

Beyond workplace initiatives, the tripartite partners urged HR to establish formal policies that may be critical to support overall well-being – especially as remote working arrangements remain the norm in Singapore.

  • Work-life harmony policy:

Provide clarity on after-hours work communication to encourage adequate rest, reclaim work-life harmony, and reduce burnout.

  • After-hours communication policy:

Establish ‘reasonable expectations’ for work-related communication. Discuss with unions where applicable.

  • Return-to-work policy:

This should consider employees recovering from mental health conditions. Allow staff the flexibility to gradually transit back to work while still providing time for their treatment.

Read more: Remote work: Why mental health support is crucial

Destigmatise and raise awareness
In addition to policy and workplace initiatives, Prof Chua Heng Choon, CEO at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) believes we need to do more to improve our understanding of mental health problems and to help people to get help.

Prof Chua spoke about the prevailing mental health stigma in the city-state at The Singapore WSH Conference 2020, attended by HRD. He also discussed the slow progress of individuals seeking help here and offered tips for leaders to push on and improve workplace wellness.

And whatever your efforts may be towards employee well-being, he said that you should aim to achieve three main things:

  1. Reduce mental health stigma

You can do this by sharing and talking more openly about mental health issues. You should also encourage co-workers to genuinely listen to others when they share their problems.

  1. Raise awareness

A simple way to raise awareness is for HR to put up posters at work and include information that can help identify symptoms or encourage people to get help.

  1. Encourage an openness to learn about mental health issues

Everyone should make the effort to learn about mental health problems. For example, watch and pay attention if there’s a TV documentary about conditions such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

“You might learn something for yourself and be able to help someone who is important to you,” he said.

“We must be aware that the times that we live in can be a stressful one. So we need to understand that mental health can be a problem and we must promote the concept of wellness.

“Then, we must provide support to people who need help. Last of all, we can [focus on] empowerment and encourage each other as we go along.”

Read more: Mental health: How to lead by example

Take small steps to make a big impact
While EAPs are ideal to help sufferers, external programs may be costly to invest in, especially amidst an ongoing recession.

He suggested that HR take simple steps to raise awareness and promote wellness, like putting up informational posters, sharing short videos that remind employees to take care of themselves, and helping staff to be more aware about burnout symptoms.

“You need to detect them and do something about it early,” he said. “If you have headaches, anxiety, cannot sleep, you’re feeling worried or concerned – these are signs that you need to do something about your mental health. [You can] share with someone or learn self-help tips.”

Read more: Feeling low? 6 warning signs you’re burning out

It’s important to encourage everyone to genuinely ask their teammates about their well-being and be ready to listen to the answer. This can be done even if we no longer have the luxury of walking over to our co-worker’s desk.

“I know it’s a bit harder now, because we don’t meet around the water cooler or the office pantry,” he said. “Maybe before a Zoom meeting, you can have three minutes of saying ‘hello’, asking people how they are. You can text each other, ‘How’re you doing? I haven’t heard from you for a while’.

“These little efforts really make a difference. It keeps people feel connected and that we’re concerned about [their] mental health.”

Read more: ‘R U OK?’: Make it daily practice amid COVID-19

Offer peer support and encourage staff to seek help
Once you’re able to create a genuine culture of empathy, the next area to focus on is to encourage acceptance and recovery for those struggling with a mental health condition. This can start from a simple chat between co-workers.

“When you ask people, ‘how are you going?’, some people [will say], ‘I'm not doing so well. It’s really tough. I’m very stressed’,” he said.

“Then what do we do? Do we just say, ‘oh no’, and change the subject? No, I think we really should listen and pay some attention, give the person some support and advise them to get some help.”

Help can come in the form of formal programs at work. He shared how healthcare institutions like IMH, TTSH and Yishun Health have staff support programs that include a peer support system, or offer encouragement to those struggling at work or personally.

HR can even train employees to be able to provide emotional support to others.

Read more: How to collect honest employee feedback

Another useful measure is to carry out sensing through employee surveys. This can be an impactful to your overall strategy due to its anonymous status. Like many, Prof Chua believes people are more willing to tell you what they’re truly feeling or stressed out about if they can share their experiences anonymously.

Follow up the survey by ‘doing something about it’. Acknowledge that work may be a stressful place for staffers. Based on the feedback, address areas or issues that need to solved.

“It is a difficult time,” he said. “And we need to acknowledge that mental health and mental well-being can be at risk in the workplace.

“It’s quite a difficult working environment for many of us in Singapore, but this year has been particularly difficult, so my request is: Pay attention to your workplace mental well-being.

“Making a small effort may go a long way. If you engage your employees and colleagues and show them that you care, you will really have better engagement. It will be able to help you to have better retention. Better mental well-being means lower absenteeism.

“[As] employees, the idea is that we care for and support each other through these difficult times.”

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