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Blog | 3 Oct 2019

Opening-up the Conversation About Mental Health

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Opening-up the Conversation About Mental Health

Over the last few years, it has become apparent to organisations both across the world and in Asia that employee wellbeing and specifically the mental health of employees have been too long overlooked. The statistics on mental health speak for themselves, with the World Health Organization reporting in 2017 that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, noting that it affects 300 million people. In Asia, the issue is compounded by taboo and the increased shame associated with mental health issues, leading to cases being ignored or untreated.  

Beyond the call to be a responsible employer, the cost to business and burden of poor mental health in the workplaceis potentially staggering, and should indicate that investing in the health of their teams makes financial sense in the long run:  

In Hong Kong  

  • The estimated average cost of health-related absence and presenteeism per organisation is HK$5,742,707 (US$734,000 rounded). 

  • It is estimated that 70 days of productivity are lost per employee.  

 

In Singapore 

  • The estimated average cost of health-related absence and presenteeism per organisation is S$789,267 (US$573,000 rounded). 

  • It is estimated that 51 days of productivity are lost per employee. 

 

Interventions to assist employees and improve their overall wellbeing can take many forms and at Community Business, we advocate for a holistic approach that incorporates four elements of employee wellbeing: work-life harmony, physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. For the purposes of this article, and in recognition of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we focus primarily on a specific intervention to solidify emotional wellbeing: storytelling. 

In their myriad forms, mental health issues are fuelled by the feeling of isolation that they breed. The insular and often physically symptomless nature of mental illness can lead sufferers to feel that they are the only people experiencing this pain and cause them to retreat further into their own shells, not seeking the medical attention they need. By calling upon those brave enough to share their experiences, storytelling workshops or campaigns can break this cycle of silence and help to spread a positive message: ‘you are not alone’. By helping people to understand that the issues they face are more common than they might seem, conversations around mental health become normalised. This in turn ensures people are more comfortable reaching out for treatment and informing their employers of their specific conditions and needs without fear of retribution. As this cycle takes hold in the workplace it is hoped that more people feel courageous enough to share their own stories and widen the network of people supporting one another and speaking boldly about mental health.  

There is a growing body of evidence to support the theory that storytelling can help to combat mental health issues. In the UK the This Is Me campaign, pioneered by Barclays in 2014 and now led by the Lord Mayor’s Appeal in London, encourages organisations to ask employees to share their lived experience about mental health through videos, blogs or another medium that works for them. By sharing stories, myths and stereotypes around mental health are challenged to help end the stigma and make it ok to talk. To date over 750 organisations have registered for This is Me across the UK and more than 200 organisations have shared employee stories reaching over 1 million employees. The impact has been far reaching: 100% of organisations surveyed in 2018 agreed that This is Me had made a positive impact on:  

  • Changing attitudes towards mental health,  

  • The number of conversations around mental health and  

  • Dispelling the myths around mental health.    

 

While still in its infancy, the This Is Me campaign is being introduced to Asia by Community Business, starting initially in India, through partnership with our leading diversity and inclusion network, DIAN India. In India the scale of challenge surrounding mental health is just beginning to be recognised.  With different surveys putting the number of people with a mental health problem between 90-200 million in India - more than the population of many countries, a growing number are acknowledging that it is high time we start talking about mental health and its impact in the workplace. On the ground in Asia there are organisations already working hard to promote storytelling as a tool to affect change. Based in India, Storywallahs, for example, helps leaders and organisations leverage the power of stories to foster a culture of inclusion and change within their companies, encouraging sharing at all levels.  

 

“Narratives are one of the most powerful ways of mainstreaming information. And when information gets mainstreamed, ideas get normalised and gain acceptance. Speaking of mainstreaming, one of the most recent examples is the #MeToo movement. It is storytelling and personal narratives that played a key role in challenging the ‘hush-hush’ around this topic and also helping us realise just how many people had experienced something like this. Sustained storytelling effort has mainstreamed conversations around breast cancer, periods, female genital mutilation and many other topics. It is time to speak about mental health. Too many people suffer from it for us to keep quiet anymore.” 

 Ameen Haque Founder, Storywallahs 

 

While relevant to employee wellbeing across the region, the need to take action to address mental health issues under Hong Kong’s current political climate is certainly timely. Psychological support services in the city have seen a spike in calls to their hotlines in recent weeks and as the protests stretch into their 15th week (as of September 2019), employees face continued uncertainly and potentially conflicting opinions in the workplace. In the absence of a structured storytelling platform to share mental health experiences, there are more immediate interventions that companies facing employee distress can take:  

  • Create a safe space and encourage respectful discussion, with the understanding that an employee base may have differing political views. Mary Frances Winters’ book ‘We Can’t Talk About That At Work’ provides an excellent base from which to tackle such conversations.  

  • Take into consideration the negative impact on emotional wellbeing. A study by Hong Kong University after the Occupy Central protests in 2014, found that depression increased 7% in the months following the protests, and that the odds of experiencing depression were four times higher during and after the protests. This was seen regardless of whether respondents directly took part in the protest movement. 

  • Provide Additional Support such as a confidential employee assistance hotline, flexible working to accommodate travel disruptions, optional or reduced travel to the mainland, up-to-date emergency contacts and clarity on specific annual leave policy.  

 

About the Author: Emily Moss, Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business