Creating a positive approach to mental health in the workplace

Mental health awareness is increasing, but employees who suffer from it still face discrimination in the workplace.

About the author

Michelle Leung, Head of HR, Cigna International

Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent World Health Organisation-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

We all have times when life gets on top of us – sometimes it's to do with our health, our relationships or our finances. At other times it’s work-related.

For most of us, work is a major part of our lives. It’s where we spend much of our time, where we obtain our income and often where we make our friends. Having a fulfilling job can be good for our mental health and general well-being. However, it can also be a source of stress and mental illness.

Long hours in Asia

The hard work ethic in Asia has been discussed many times. According to a survey conducted by USB last year, Hong Kong has the longest working week of any city in the world, clocking an average 51.1 hours per week. In fact, Asian cities take four out of the top five places. People in Mumbai and New Delhi work an average of 43.8 and 42.6 hours per week respectively, and Bangkok is close behind at 42.1 hours.

Can employees keep up with these long working hours and the associated stress? Maybe not. According to a 2014 study by the University of Hong Kong on workplace mental health conditions, 90% of employees say they need better support at work, while 60% say mental health issues are pushing away talented staff.

The hidden costs of mental illness

Awareness of mental health is increasing, but we still face a world where some people with mental health problems face discrimination, and have challenges getting the help they need. Asia has a particularly competitive culture and there is a significant stigma associated with mental illness. This means mental health issues have been largely informed in the past.

The hard and soft cost of mental illness is certainly one felt at many levels. First, there is the psychological strain on people and their families. Then there is the monetary cost – and it’s not limited to hospital treatment and medication. The largest cost to employers and employees is for non-health related aspects – such as someone being off work.

There is also the issue of presenteeism – where people are at work but not performing well. People generally do not want to admit they are suffering from a mental health issue so will continue to show up at work and not ask for help.

Employee Assistance Programmes

Sometimes employees find family issues are the main source of their stress in the workplace. In the so-called sandwich generation, employees can find themselves looking after both their children and their parents, while trying to manage full-time jobs.

A way companies can support their employees is by setting up an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs mix face-to-face care, telephone advice and online help for people dealing with physical illness, plus stress-related and emotional pressures that may limit their effectiveness on the job. EAPs can give voluntary guidance, referrals and follow-up for employees, in addition to addressing large-scale workplace needs. Importantly, EAPs are not just for employees, but also for their families. They can get help on a range physical and mental health issues – plus very practical help on, for example, care for parents, legal advice and even emergency pet sitters!

Not everyone wants to talk to a mental health professional though. This is why, in the UK, have introduced online therapy for mild to moderate anxiety and depression for our employer clients. Employees who are reluctant or unable to meet a therapist or even make a telephone call, can still have access to online guidance and get some of the help they need.

New Office, New Workstyle

There are also many simple ways that a company can support the mental health of its employees. At Cigna, we are about to move our International headquarters in Hong Kong to another floor in the same building. We see this as an exciting opportunity to rethink some of our working practices.

For example, we have incorporated a quiet room into the new design, where people can go for some ‘me time.’ We are also kicking off an official “work from home when practical” policy. This means when employees need a break after traveling on business or have personal activities to attend to, maybe involving children or parents, they can work from home without feeling guilty or causing inconvenience to colleagues.

Hands on Health

Of course, companies do not need special processes or new offices to support good mental health.

I believe relationships are key to our mental health. Working in a supportive, non-critical team is hugely important. We can help each other by reminding ourselves to take regular breaks from work – particularly to ‘detox’ away from our computer screens when possible. Taking a walk during lunch or doing a class can have a tremendous benefit.

It might seem counterintuitive, but there are a host of great apps available which can help our mental health. At Cigna we have our Happify resilience app – it’s a science-based tool designed to help you reach your goals. You can choose from 55 expert programmes — called tracks — for exercises, activities, and games that help you cope with stress more effectively, be kinder to yourself, strengthen your relationships and build resiliency. 

I have also been reading a lot about the ‘Calm’ app lately, which was voted Apple’s 2017 app of the year. There are many similar programmes with guided meditations and relaxing music and images which help us take a mindful pause during busy days.

In the future, I hope we can create workplaces which foster good mental health and, if problems arise, where people feel free to speak about their concerns and find it easy to obtain the help they need.

By addressing and opening up discussion about mental well-being in the workplace, employers can offer the support and tools employees need without intruding on their privacy; and create a more positive and productive work environment. 

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