Inhale, Exhale…And Don’t Go Mental

Image credit: iStockphoto/Antonio_Diaz

More Asia companies are putting mental wellness on the agenda. There is no shortage of yoga classes, mindfulness and meditation workshops to support employees’ mental health.

But organizational psychologists and technology experts say mental wellness is more than classes and workshops. It’s both an art and a science, and it is also where Asian companies face additional challenges, especially when building this ecosystem of mental health support, says Delicia Ser, managing partner at Cydel.

Social stigma and Asia values

A strong stigma associated with mental illness and lower awareness already pose challenges when addressing mental health problems, says Ser, who started her firm after 20 years of organizational psychology experience in aviation and the military.  

Social disapproval and harmful stereotyping of people with mental illness see many avoid an open conversation about it. The lack of awareness of mental illness symptoms causes many to miss out on timely treatment.

Ser adds Asian cultural biases also bring additional challenges for people dealing with the problem in the work environment.

“Asian values, like hard work, are often seen as virtues. The harder you work, the more likely you will succeed,” says Ser. “This may not work so well for those with mental health because sometimes you need to do the opposite and not work so hard to preserve our mental health.”

Merging domestic and professional challenges

Despite the lack of understanding towards mental wellness in Asia, the latest WFH arrangements have also forced many managers to face challenges that they were not prepared for, says Shaakun Khanna, head of Oracle’s HCM cloud applications strategy in APAC.

He observes it is not uncommon for a performance review discussion to turn into a conversation about domestic relationships. After all, domestic conflicts that used to remain at home can now come up during working hours in a remote working environment, affecting work performance.

“The pandemic has exposed a lot of hidden problems or escalated issues that were previously not as critical,” adds Chinyi Cheng, a partner at Cydel. She says that these conflicts are pushing many towards the lower spectrum of their mental wellness, affecting their performance at work.

With a focus on talent assessment and training, Cydel has been helping companies and their talents to cope with these issues and enhance performance through organizational psychology.

Multi-level advocacy

Having more companies recognizing the need to support mental health is not enough. Cheng from Cydel advises a multilayered and holistic mental health strategy to support the entire workforce.

She says much mental health support like relaxation classes or mindfulness workshops are great tools to kickstart self-care. But they are only tackling the issue at an individual level.

Without multi-level advocacy on mental wellness — from the company’s policies and processes to the managers’ enforcement — Cheng believes the impact will be limited.

“The senior management needs to believe the talent’s mental wellbeing is important for the organization’s success,” says Cheng. “Managers also need to reduce the workload, at least on a temporary basis, when an individual needs the time and space to seek psychological help.”

Since most of the stress is systematic, Ser notes that companies should train their managers to create a supportive environment. “Most managers are good at their work, but they are not necessarily trained to be a better leader,” she says.

Cheng adds that an alignment of this multi-level support can ensure the enforcement of a mental health strategy. It also shows that the company truly cares.

According to the recent Workplace APAC 2021 CHRO Study, a qualitative study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Oracle of 55 companies in the Asia Pacific region, many companies in the region are integrating psychological safety as part of the employee wellbeing strategy.

“We believe in the approach that we are not going to gain anything by scrambling and scratching and trying to save the last rupee but focusing on the mental well-being of our employees will be critical for us, beneficial in the long run, and give us a better ROI,” says Raj Narayan, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Titan Company Limited in the study.

Holistic approach

Ser from Cydel believes that a sustainable mental health therapy strategy should be holistic. 

A holistic strategy should consist of knowledge to enable awareness, access to techniques and psychological help, and social support to sustain mental health.

Many companies provide self-help portals with bite-size videos to explain different conditions with tools and self-care techniques. Another important element is access to mental health professionals, which is often not financially affordable for many.

“Social support is also important,” Cheng adds. “Many think counseling is the best way, but peer-to-peer bonding helps in many ways to enhance team performance. A closely-bonded team also tends to perform better.”

Track and predict

The role of technology is also critical in the enforcement of a multi-level mental health strategy, says Khanna from Oracle.

The integration of systems with analytics can help companies to develop algorithms to identify individuals with higher levels of stress or at higher risk for resignation. He says that analyzing factors like workload, days off, and performance can develop predictive wellbeing and enable companies to take proactive actions.

Cheng adds that an AI-powered chatbot is also becoming available to provide initial therapy. “In many Asian countries where the access to clinical psychologists can be limited, these chatbots can provide initial help and tackle the issue of isolation or loneliness,” she says.  

In some cases, employees prefer to talk to a robot than their managers. An Oracle study notes that 68% of people prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work.

“We launched an app called Nanduri, where people could go and talk about their health, diet, and stress, and employees could receive expert counseling from an external source,” PK Medappa, chief people officer at AirAsia Berhad states in the Workplace APAC 2021 CHRO Study.

Exercising choices

Despite the increasing use of technologies, Ser warns cautious use of technologies to track mental health information as it could be invasive. Companies need to be aware that “policy with good intension when implemented wrongly could also damage trust,” she says.

Khanna also notes that creating empathetic employee experiences very much depends on the company’s openness and its ability to equip the managers in the use of data.

“The world has moved to an unprecedented level of transparency. Organizations need to be open and clear about their use of technologies, but the choice is always up to the individual,” he says.

It ultimately comes down to employee choice. While there is no one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to mental health programs, delivering a hyper-personalized employee experience is about empowering employees to exercise choice, he concludes.

Sheila Lam is the contributing editor of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Covering IT for 20 years as a journalist, she has witnessed the emergence, hype, and maturity of different technologies but is always excited about what's next. You can reach her at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Antonio_Diaz