Leadership in the new normal must ensure employee well-being

The coronavirus pandemic taught us the importance of mental health in work and personal functioning. Leaders must take charge of this area henceforth.

Employees take cues from their leaders and look to them to see how they weather the storms of life.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Workplace mental health has taken a front seat this year. Already deemed a "highly stressed" nation of workers, Singapore saw the Covid-19 pandemic bring a perfect storm of stressors to our shores with work-from-home arrangements blurring the line between employees' work and personal lives, social isolation as people stayed home while offices and shops were shut, fears about job security, and restrictions on travel.

Prior to the pandemic, stress-related illnesses were already costing Singapore's economy $3.2 billion annually, according to a study last year. Whether organisations return to their workplaces or continue with their remote working arrangements, are employees ready for the new work normal? How can employers keep their workforce mentally healthy and future-ready in a post-Covid recovery?

Last month, the much-awaited Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces was released.

The advisory outlines recommendations to prevent work stress from compromising well-being and productivity at the individual, team and organisational levels.

As a member of the recent Tripartite Oversight Committee on Workplace Safety and Health, I very much welcome these recommendations, which are building blocks for creating a mental health-friendly workplace.

Yet, these guidelines, while useful, risk becoming merely the responsibility of human resources departments. What is needed is to go beyond HR functions to build mental health into the new normal of leadership, to transform the culture of stigma to acceptance and inclusion.

Leaders set the tone

Leaders need to set the tone for inculcating employee well-being throughout the organisation. How leaders relate to mental health issues, what expectations they create, and whether they are able to view their employees as whole persons, influence the employee's experience at work. So introducing well-being initiatives, like having a mental health helpline for employees, without addressing organisational culture or leadership, is not really helpful.

The good news is that mental health awareness is rising and more leaders are coming on board the issue. Since May 2018, an informal group of C-suite leaders across private and public sectors have committed to making workplace mental well-being a leadership priority. Calling ourselves the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, the community has grown threefold this year to 75 chief executives and leaders.

Over three CEO breakfast dialogues, numerous quarterly learning lunches and many one-to-one conversations, I have observed beliefs and behaviours from the work group members that demonstrate new possibilities in well-being leadership for employees and workplaces to adapt and thrive. They can be summarised into a "4C" leadership model to foster well-being.

Courage

At the peak of the pandemic, Dr Daniel Tan, CEO of ParkwayHealth Laboratory and a member of the WorkWell Workgroup, wrote about his own state of burnout in an e-mail to employees. Then he found himself hesitating a little before he clicked "send".

Change requires courage, and vulnerability may be the only true measure of strength. Other leaders of the work group such as Mr Hsieh Fu Hua (former CEO of the Singapore Exchange) and Mr Piyush Gupta (CEO of DBS Bank) have also shared their personal struggles with mental health, first within the work group and later with The Straits Times.

When leaders share their own experiences with mental health, they validate that mental health is a continuum and can affect every one, not just some of us. Leaders such as Dr Tan, Mr Hsieh and Mr Gupta help open up that space of trust for their team members to know that having mental health difficulties does not mean they are less. This helps break the stigma, give hope and encourage help-seeking.

They also become better leaders and managers in the process as they become more aware of who they are (and who they are not), as well as why or how they lead. There is a fierce courage in being able to say "I am not perfect, and that is fine".

Compassion (care)

In a recent study by Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40 per cent of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing okay - and those respondents were 38 per cent more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.

Aviva CEO Nishit Majmudar shared at a recent dialogue earlier this month that his company has regular "pulse checks" to check with workers. "It is through such listening that I know whether the culture that exists in a company is reflective of the one I want to build: a company with a heartbeat," he says. An advocate of compassionate leadership, he strongly believes that "employees will go the extra mile and care for the company like their own if the company takes good care of them".

Now more than ever, people need to feel that employers care about them. Leaders may be firm and practical but they can always exhibit a level of compassion.

However, if this compassion does not include themselves, it is incomplete. Leaders cannot pour from an empty cup. Self-care is important so that leaders can give the best of themselves, not the remnants of what is left after fatigue.

Congruence

Employees take cues from their leaders and look to them to see how they weather the storms of life. Therefore, leaders mustn't just say they support mental well-being, but must also role-model healthy behaviours so that their team members feel they can prioritise self-care and set boundaries.

Finding that he was falling into a pattern of working from 8am to midnight almost every day with the work-from-home arrangement, Mr Kevin McGuigan, managing director of the South-east Asia region and Singapore country leader at American multinational corporation 3M, now steps away from his computer between 5 pm and 9 pm every day. He shared this change openly with his team members and encouraged them "to look for ways to drive a better work-life balance".

Leaders like Mr McGuigan give permission through their actions and behaviours for staff to build the type of culture they wish to see in their organisation. Studies have found that organisations whose leaders are role models for prioritising health and work-life balance reported higher median satisfaction rates from employees for their workforce wellness efforts.

Leaders must walk the talk on well-being because we are what we do, not what we say we will do.

Clarity (communication)

Offering clarity amid uncertainty is tricky, especially since leaders are expected to have all the answers.

Authenticity in communication, and being equally open about what is clear and what is not clear is critical to establish trust. One way is by providing clarity of information simply, quickly and frequently, and by demonstrating that critical issues are being personally monitored by leaders.

PwC Singapore convened a Work from Home Task Force comprising the firm's partners at the onset of the pandemic, which made sure employee mental well-being is on its agenda, shared Mr Sam Kok Weng, a senior partner of the firm.

When leaders have a clear sense of purpose that ties back to the mission and values of the organisation, they are more able to inspire workers to feel confident and positive of their future. This fosters trust and builds goodwill.

Clarity in words and actions can help employees feel safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally during a crisis like Covid-19. Such clarity also helps employees put their experience into context - and draw meaning from it.

"We believe that we must treat everyone fairly to create psychological safety for employees to be themselves and to feel a sense of belonging to the company, regardless of who they are," shared Mr Koh Khai Yang, Asia-Pacific chairman of global energy research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie.

This year, in addition to adding mental health to the company's benefits programme for all, Mr Koh also made the groundbreaking decision to recognise the status of his employees' same-sex partners by extending the same spouse benefits to them as heterosexual couples.

Leaders who live up to their values and take action to be consistent with what they believe in are never silent about hard choices, as leadership expert Brene Brown has noted. Mental health is a hard and complex challenge, made more so by Covid-19 and a future that is increasingly more volatile and uncertain as the nature of work changes.

Yet, this "crisis of a generation", as many have termed the pandemic, has also presented an unprecedented opportunity for leaders in public and private sectors to move employee mental health and well-being up the priority chain.

Instead of seeing the workplace as a source of stress, anxiety and mental ills that must be constantly mitigated, can leaders commit to making workplaces a source of mental well-being as our fundamental responsibility? When leaders show up with courage, compassion, congruence and clarity for well-being as a strategic priority, I believe we can.

Anthea Ong is a former Nominated MP, a professional certified coach and a social entrepreneur who founded Hush TeaBar, A Good Space and the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup.