Mental Health Policy has always been a low priority in most regions of Southeast Asia (SEA). With 11 countries that make one quarter of the world’s population, some places in SEA are notorious for their rigorous overtime culture. In a race to spur economic growth, workers’ mental health are often overlooked. It comes as no surprise that Singaporeans are named the world’s unhappiest workers, while Malaysia is cited as the world’s longest hours worked and spent commuting.
Even before the Covid-19, anxiety has affected 60 million people in Southeast Asia alone, with almost 86 million living with depression. Experts predicted the coming of the pandemic have put additional stress on employees as they contend with new and added mental stressors such as job and financial insecurity, sick or unemployed family members, and isolation.
The situation at hand
WHO cited although most of SEA countries have national mental health policy, implementation at ground level remains a huge challenge and this includes enforcement at the workplaces. A study revealed that even though 61% of employees trust their employer to look after their well-being and 48% of executives rank it as a top workforce concern, only 29% of HR leaders have a health and well-being strategy in place.
The Indonesian Occupational Medicine Association released data in 2017 showing that more than 60% of small and medium industry workers suffer from depression, and 57% have insomnia. These untreated work-related stress will eventually lead to workers picking up unhealthy behavioral patterns, like heavy alcohol consumption and increased smoking.
The Indonesian Manpower Ministry has included psychological well-being in a 2018 ministerial regulation which stipulates that companies or employers must implement stress management to avoid their workers having mental health problems. However, the pandemic has been against the overall Indonesians’ welfare. In a recent webinar, Director of Mental Health and Drugs at the Ministry of Health, Celestinus Eigya Munthe, confirmed the increasing cases of 6.8% anxiety and 8.5% depression post-pandemic.
In 2018, according to Relate Mental Health Malaysia as cited by The Star, the cost of mental health issues in the workplace to the economy is conservatively estimated to be RM14.46 billion or 1% of Malaysia’s GDP that year. The study also found that 68% of the total cost (close to RM10 billion) was the result of workers’ presenteeism (turning up to work despite feeling unwell), 23% or RM3.28 billion due to absence, and 9% or RM1.34 billion was because of staff turnover.
Despite already having codified employees’ safety, health, and welfare in The Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 (OSHA 1994), a study shows that depression remains a major threat against mental health illness among Malaysians. One of the reasons behind this is because of OSHA 1994’s self-regulating nature, which makes the law’s liability on employers in relation to the mental health of their employees in Malaysia, even after the pandemic hit, remains unclear.
The Singapore Mental Health conducted a study between 2016 and 2018, revealing that 1 in 7 Singaporeans experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. As recently as November last year (2020), Today Online covered a tragic story where an employee was forced to hide her mental-illness out of fear of getting “stymied from promotion.”
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) admits drastic changes to work cultures after the pandemic can and have contributed to work stress for many employees. Citing ILO (International Labor Organization), MOM also reminds employers to always be mindful of occupation hazards that can harm employee’s mental well-being despite some degree of work stressors will not have adverse effects. MOM, together with Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), has recently jointly issued a Tripartite advisory on mental well-being at workplaces.
What to improve
ASEAN policy brief proposed 4 key solutions or strategies to improve Southeast Asian mental health’s well-being. One of them being “Human resource management and development” which focuses on prioritizing workers’ health program policies which have been set aside for too long. Actionables steps recommended by ASEAN include:
WHO specifically endorsed employers’ investment on anxiety and depression prevention at workplaces. Not only that, promoting mental health and providing support will also reduce absenteeism and increase workers’ productivity. They also released data that $0.5-1 investment on workers’ mental health can increase productivity by 10%.
Liana Attard, Multinational Client Group Leader at Mercer, said, “Covid-19 has exposed the gaps in outdated benefit plans. Many employers have had to reactively seek support to help employees manage caregiving and volatility in retirement savings, for example.
“Disruption brings opportunity – to reflect, reset and reinvigorate – reexamining business models, adopting more sustainable practices, adapting to new ways of working and embracing digital solutions to prepare for the future of work. Throughout all of this, it is imperative to lead with kindness – engage, listen, and understand the impact to the employee experience.”
As businesses are planning to ask their employees’ come back to their offices, HR leaders should prioritize employees’ mental health policy on top of their list. Taken from Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study, only 45% of executives believe their workforce can adapt to the new world of work, yet only 14% have conducted an internal survey of what employees are thinking and feeling. What employers may miss is that there are some employees who feel reluctant to go back to work. New normal means workers need to juggle between going back to work and adjusting to the new health protocols post-pandemic, and it is HR leaders’ responsibility to ensure that transition goes as smoothly as possible.