WORKING LIFE

Hush now, have a cuppa and reflect

Ms Ong says a key obstacle when she started Hush TeaBar was "making sure people didn't think of it as just another trendy teahouse served by 'token' deaf staff", but one that makes participants step into their world.
Ms Ong says a key obstacle when she started Hush TeaBar was "making sure people didn't think of it as just another trendy teahouse served by 'token' deaf staff", but one that makes participants step into their world. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Social movement holds silent tea sessions in workplaces, guided by its deaf staff, to let employees reflect and relax

As a child, Ms Anthea Ong was called names like "retard" and "weirdo" by friends and family because of a medical condition of lax eye muscles, which meant her eyes just would not focus.

"It wasn't that they didn't like me. They meant it in an affectionate way, but it still hurt," said Ms Ong, now 47.

This "empathy and understanding of what it's like to be labelled different" that she developed was one of the reasons behind her founding of Hush TeaBar.

The for-profit social movement holds silent tea-drinking sessions in workplaces, guided by its deaf "TeaRistas", to give stressed-out employees space and time to reflect and relax.

The experience starts with participants choosing a Hush tea blend that resonates with their present or desired mood. They then surrender their mobile devices before the TeaRistas guide them through a tea-drinking ritual using sign language and gestures.

BREAKING DOWN LABELS

Our society labels deaf people as different and disadvantaged, but in the silent environment of the tea bar, we realise that deaf people are higher-functioning than us.

MS ANTHEA ONG

After the ritual, participants reflect on their experiences through painting with their fingers, using tea as ink. Finally, they come out of their silence to share their thoughts with their colleagues.

"People generally are hesitant about sharing their personal stories with colleagues because employees want to put on a competent and 'brave' front," noted National University of Singapore Business School's Professor Vivien Lim.

A "sense of psychological safety" could help foster workplace relations through the sharing of personal experiences, she said.

Apart from its "Hush@Workplace" sessions, the mobile tea bar has wrapped up a four-day Ministry of Transport leadership retreat through reflection, supplemented the rehabilitation efforts of cancer support groups, and counts DBS Bank as one of its repeat customers.

"Even the 'very coffee people' enjoyed the unique tea ritual... it took people on a reflective journey," said DBS Foundation head Patsian Low.

Before founding Hush, Ms Ong was similarly "caught up in the rat race" as an entrepreneur when life "came crashing down" in 2007, after a bitter divorce and a failing business.

She started practising meditation and yoga daily, which she felt helped her become more self-aware.

"Then I read that 90 per cent of psychiatrists' patients in Singapore grapple with mental disorders caused by workplace stress and that really affected me," she said.

Hush is her way of tackling the stress epidemic by "helping people in the workplace pause and connect with themselves" over tea.

She said a key obstacle when she started Hush was "making sure people didn't think of Hush as just another trendy teahouse served by 'token' deaf staff", but one that makes participants step into their world.

"Our society labels deaf people as different and disadvantaged, but in the silent environment of the tea bar, we realise that deaf people are higher-functioning than us."

Ms Ong hopes the experience will help participants look at deaf people differently and also think about the labels they may have placed on their own colleagues, so as to create a more accepting and collaborative workplace.

Started in October 2014, Hush has a pool of more than 25 TeaRistas and has served over 1,000 people. It is mostly led and run by volunteers and Ms Ong is hoping to incorporate it as a social enterprise or cooperative this year.

The tea bar also holds bi-monthly sessions for the public, the next of which will be held on Thursday evening at restaurant Pollen at Gardens by the Bay.

It is looking to enter the retail sector with its packaged tea blends, complete with a starter kit for a taster of the Hush experience, and could be expanding to cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Seattle under a franchise model.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Hush now, have a cuppa and reflect'. Print Edition | Subscribe