Storytelling in the Workplace - An Effective Tool to Engage in Conversations on Mental Health

Status of Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplaces Across Asia

The pandemic brought mental health challenges to everybody's doorstep. We've known that our mental health is critical to our overall wellbeing for a long time, even before the pandemic, with the WHO estimating that depression affects about 300 million people worldwide. This time with extended lockdowns, quarantine and travel restrictions establishing an entirely new way of living, we have all experienced poor mental health at some point or throughout.

We are now facing another silent pandemic as we grapple with the prolonged stress, burnout, fatigue, anxiety, loneliness, and grief. Across APAC, close to 1 in 4 employees have reported experiencing mental health problems in the past 12 months. 27% of the respondents of the CMHAHK survey reported feeling depressed, 36% reported experiencing sleep issues, and an alarming 42% said they felt mentally drained. Thinking about the number of people in our workplaces who may be showing up to work and putting on a brave face while fighting silent battles, the need for mental health to sit on top of your people and business agendas becomes apparent now more than ever.

We are starting to see a shift in the efforts made to positively influence the culture of wellbeing across Asia, with many employers either introducing or bolstering their EAP services. Some have even been providing opportunities for open discussion through talks, with a few making it the focal point of their talent and risk strategy. Despite these promising changes, several critical issues, around stigma, fear, and lack of support, persist.

Issues We See Across the Workplaces in Asia

In workplaces across Asia, there are unique challenges and a reluctance to address mental health directly. Detailed in Community Business's Embracing Mental Health in the Workplace in Asia, some factors include the high level of stigma towards mental health. This stigma proves to be the most significant barrier to employees speaking openly about their struggles. With employees unlikely to speak up, employers may wrongly conclude that this is not a priority issue within their workforce.

To add to the complexity of the situation, companies may not know how to respond. In light of the cultural intricacies, this is a legitimate concern. Companies need to approach the subject thoughtfully, carefully and have a robust support system in place. Herein lies another challenge – a shortage of professional services – particularly psychiatrists and counsellors, available to support those with mental health conditions in Asia.

However, there is also a reluctance to face the root causes. Another critical reason companies might not be inclined to tackle mental health directly is that it requires an honest look at the work environment. They may also need to acknowledge that their working culture and practices may contribute to the poor mental health of employees.

With a lack of awareness and nervousness associated with speaking about mental health, many people shy away. Unable to overcome the initial feelings of discomfort in embracing vulnerability, people bury their struggles and stories under the pressure of being considered brave, a hard worker or the fear of being labelled as difficult or a troublemaker.

With a growing number of employees reaching out and opening up to their colleagues about mental health challenges, it is of utmost importance that employers review their commitment to the wellbeing of their employees. This calls for an inclusive culture that boasts openness and a consideration of the resources, skills, and assurances that employees need to prioritise wellbeing as individuals and take steps to tackle the stigma as colleagues.

The Power of Storytelling

When it comes to fostering a culture of openness and inclusivity in the workplace, storytelling is a powerful tool to open conversations around mental health. Research shows that storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to bring about cultural and behavioural change. Attitudes, knowledge, and behaviour towards people with mental health problems are more likely to improve if people are allowed to learn from someone who has a personal experience to share. At the same time, seeing other people share their stories encourages people to tell their own, empowering employees to be more honest with each other and fostering a more open and supportive culture that benefits all.

Indeed, like Maya Angelou, the great American author and poet, said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Many who have kept their mental health struggles a secret know the truth of this statement. Yet, sharing personal experiences in a supportive and inclusive environment can be incredibly liberating and empowering.

Storytelling gives us so much more than a change in attitudes and behaviour. It helps people feel less alone, and it cultivates empathy and compassion. Personal stories from real people get us to question the negative stereotypes surrounding mental health. Sustained storytelling efforts have mainstreamed conversations around breast cancer, periods, female genital mutilation and many other topics. It is time to speak about mental health.

This is Me Asia Storytelling Programme

Despite mental health challenges impacting 1 in 4 people across the Asia Pacific, the stigma surrounding mental health in society and the workplace prevents employees in Asia from getting the support they need. Community Business is delighted to be partnering with Bloomberg Asia to bring the This is Me in Asia storytelling programme to help improve the wellbeing of employees and for employers to create supportive workplaces across Asia.

This is Me, led by the Lord Mayor's Appeal and originating in London, is a pioneering initiative to reduce stigma and dispel myths around mental health in the workplace. This initiative aims to improve the awareness and understanding of wellbeing to create safer and more supportive working environments, forging healthier workplaces. The campaign harnesses the social history, experiences, and expertise of those at the forefront of positive mental health and wellbeing in a business environment. This is Me provides a platform for employees who have experienced mental health problems to share their stories with others, breaking down stereotypes and unhelpful myths to make it normal to talk about mental health.

This campaign is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to employee wellbeing and impact positive change. Whether you already have a storytelling programme focused on mental health or want to introduce one, we invite you to be a part of This is Me Asia. In the coming weeks, we will be sharing more on ways to get involved.


About the Author: Sakshi Kumar, Senior Manager of Employee Wellbeing at Community Business