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How leaders can stay mentally healthy under pressure

Schroders Singapore CEO Lily Choh talks about the challenges leaders face, why workplaces should be more flexible, and the importance of purpose.

Schroders Singapore CEO Lily Choh is a member of WorkWell Leaders, a non-profit collective of CEOs who champion workplace mental health. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Covid-19 may have shone the spotlight on employees' mental well-being. But less attention has been paid to the mental health of those at the top who find themselves dealing not just with an uncertain economic environment, but also higher expectations from staff and shareholders.

The statistics are sobering: Nearly 70 per cent of C-suite executives are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being; 36 per cent of them are exhausted; 41 per cent are stressed; and 26 per cent even depressed.

Over four-fifths say improving their well-being is more important than advancing their career, according to a survey of 2,100 employees and C-level executives across four countries - the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia - by Deloitte and human resources advisory firm Workplace Intelligence in June.

When leaders are not well, their teams suffer. So what can they do to thrive despite the pressure?

I sat down with chief executive officer of Schroders Singapore Lily Choh, to find out.

She is a member of WorkWell Leaders, a non-profit collective of CEOs who champion workplace mental health. Former Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong is its founding chairman.

Covid-19, Ms Choh told me, had been a "rough journey" for her staff due to limited face-to-face interactions. The glue of workplace bonding, such as team-building and community activities, had moved online and were only just physically reinstated this year.

"Every staff member has risen above the (difficult) situation. But we also recognise that people's wants, needs and purpose in life are very different now because of the pandemic," she said.

The company now practises a hybrid working arrangement where employees go back to office two to three days a week. Together with their bosses, they discuss the arrangement which best meets the needs of clients, the teams, as well as the individual.

Adopting healthy personal habits

What is particularly challenging for corporate leaders are structural long-term shifts taking place in the economy. Leaders, said Ms Choh, must be able to identify trends, pivot their businesses, and future-proof their companies.

But at the same time, having just emerged from a pandemic where staff were burning the candle at both ends, getting them to do even more and to go beyond business-as-usual is difficult.

"We absolutely need to change the way we do business," she said.

"This is where I need to help my staff see that future (and ensure) that everyone has a skill set that's relevant for the future. That to me is the biggest stress point."

When was the last time she felt she really needed a break, I asked.

She came across as candid and thoughtful in her response, recalling the height of the pandemic and the always-on culture that it spawned.

Working from home had blurred the lines between work and life, she said, and many employees were working 24/7.

Although she tries to lead by example, she admits that she sometimes logs on after dinner and works till midnight.

"(But) there are times when I say 'enough for the day' or 'enough for the week'. I tell my teams that it's absolutely fine to say, 'Look, Lily, I think I need to take a break'. It's no longer a stigma to say 'I'm a little stressed'."

Family time is spent jogging or brisk-walking at least twice a week around the neighbourhood. She is especially fond of the Goldhill area where there is a park, likening it to a private sanctuary where she can spend "healing time".

There are occasions when, during sunset, I can see the silhouettes of my hubby, daughter and son against the dimming lights, she said. "They remind me that the kids grow up so fast and time just whizzes by.

"It is so important that we learn to take pauses from work and just spend time with our loved ones, making every simple moment count. That's why my family time means so much to me as it keeps my mental and physical health in check."

She also recommends coming up with bucket lists. Such lists do not have to be travel destinations - they can be cooking a meal, or learning something new.

"It's important to be very clear about what makes you happy. When you see (the items on the bucket list being) realised, that lifts up your morale and spirit."

Workplace support

Personal lists aside, formal workplace structures for mental well-being matter too.

In 2019, Schroders signed the Mental Health at Work commitment to a standards framework for a work environment where employees can thrive.

Under the SCHampions initiative, employees volunteer to be trained by the Singapore Emergency Responder Academy on mental health awareness. Schroders today has 18 SCHampions, of which six are senior management.

SCHampions are a point of contact if staff experience a mental health issue or emotional distress. While they are not mental health professionals, they give employees the initial support and can signpost them to more help if needed.

At the personal level, Ms Choh is part of WorkWell Leaders' CEO Connect programme, which pairs up CEOs to share their personal well-being experiences and plans.

Head of Be Well programmes for WorkWell Leaders Robert Grove told me that it can be hard for C-level executives to be completely open to family and friends who may not understand the pressures of their jobs. CEO Connect fills that void, by providing mutual and confidential support.

Ms Choh was paired up with country manager for Pfizer Singapore Erika Pagani. The two met a few months ago and hit it off immediately.

"That was lovely, because we just shared about some of the struggles and challenges we see," she said.

Having enjoyed the interaction, she thinks there is room to grow it into something bigger: "We could invite friends and peers to form a small group of community and support. I think that's really important."

Covid-19 also changed her perspective on failure.

Given the stigma associated with failure in the corporate world, people tend to avoid talking about it, she said. But positive lessons can be drawn if one takes a team-based approach instead of blaming the individual.

"So if you miss a deal, or some investment did not pan out well, there's no finger-pointing in our culture," she said.

"We think about what went wrong, and then we think about what we can do better the next time. That alleviates a lot of the stress and pressure points on the whole firm and the team."

It also encourages people to speak up and share more, she said, which in turn generates positive energy.

Leaders should also be comfortable with showing vulnerability, which can make them more relatable and personable, she said.

That openness is important because people no longer want to engage with their leaders only on work, but also on how their work connects to their own lives and sense of purpose.

"Why are we doing this? Why are we embracing new initiatives?

"That purpose, outcomes, the objectives - they need to be really clearly articulated so that everyone buys in and embraces it."

Across the world, it's becoming clear to employers that physical and mental well-being are not just about access to gyms or clinical and psychological care.

They are also about creating the right infrastructure and conditions that will strengthen employees' resilience to the chronic stresses of modern working life.

Ms Choh admits that the journey has just begun. But she is hopeful that the tenor of conversations on well-being will change for the better: "Something good came out of Covid-19, in that we all now know about the need to have purpose in life, and purpose at work."

  • Today is World Mental Health Day.

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