Mental health first, work second

When start-up co-founder Laura Allen started feeling exhausted, overly emotional and mentally out of sorts, she thought to herself that she was just burnt out. Sure, she was busy with work and wore all the signs of success. Her Singapore-based social business Gone Adventurin' was taking off, and the company had just had its best year yet. She had a solid team, and great relationships with her friends and her partner.

So when she started getting suicidal thoughts, it came as a shock, even to her. It was only then that the alarm bells went off.

"It scared me so much. I'd always thought I was very strong and didn't think it would happen to me. I thought people with depression were weak," she told The Business Times.

While she was fortunate to have supportive and understanding company advisors and mentors, many others - both employees and managers - are keeping their mental health problems under wraps for fear of losing out in promotion opportunities, or even their jobs. Attitudes may be changing and more people are seeking help, but the stigma attached to that still lingers.

Enough is enough. It's time to shine a spotlight on this issue that thrives in the shadow of secrecy and shame.

Fear of the unknown

Last week, this column was about why job happiness is overrated, but this is not the same as saying that one should remain in a toxic, stressful job that makes one miserable. It takes discernment to know the difference between being challenged and being stretched too thin.

Mental illness is a lot more common than you think: everyone knows someone who has experienced depression or anxiety to some degree. But the problem is that the issue is usually discussed in furtive whispers, with insinuations that the person is somehow defective.

Christopher Cheok, vice-chairman of the medical board at the Institute of Mental Health, said there are multiple factors for vulnerability to mental health problems; these include genetics, the environment and one's job description.

"Certain stressful environments can make a person get mental health issues… A good yardstick is when work stress affects a person's health and his relationships. If the person is losing sleep, losing weight, alienating family, friends and the significant other, it's wise to make a change."

But in this day and age, there is a deep emphasis on putting up a front. We are told to "man up"; showing emotions is cast as a weakness of some kind. Millennials, for example, have often been scoffed at as the "strawberry generation" by older folks, who say these younger ones are easily bruised and unable to take life's hard knocks.

It appears that there is little tolerance and compassion shown to those who find it tough dealing with pressure or meeting the demands of today's work environment. Coupled with a poor economy where layoffs are happening, workers who are cracking under the strain are choosing to remain in unhealthy, stressful environments, as they are thankful to even have a job.

Poor mental health can manifest in alcohol abuse, anger-management issues and addiction to gambling. Executives who find themselves knocking back too many drinks to help them cope may be unaware that it is a sign of something more serious. Not everyone's suffering is visible to the eye.

Dr Cheok said: "Most people who are high achievers are able to mask their depression. Their intellectual ability allows them to function at work, but once in their own private space and time, they have typical signs of depression."

Change from the top

To solve this problem at the root, it is imperative that businesses step up and play a part. Hsieh Fu Hua, chairman of the United Overseas Bank, said he became more aware of mental well-being back in 2000, when his daughter was diagnosed with depression; the experience shaped the way he began approaching the issue, especially in his capacity as a leader.

Among the practical steps employers can take to look after their people, he said, the first is to ensure that insurance cover for staff includes provision of mental health.

Secondly, employers should make counselling and therapy available for employees. When he was chief executive of the Singapore Exchange (SGX), the company had to be restructured at one point.

Recognising that it was period of great stress for the staff, he called for a counselling service to be set up; counsellors were present several times a week to give employees a chance to unburden their problems and not have it "marked against them".

He said: "Initially people were wary and unfamiliar with the idea, but after a while, slots got filled up." The service continued to be provided throughout his time in SGX.

Finally, Mr Hsieh said, people grappling with mental health issues ought to be allowed safe space for feeling the way they do, and to have their needs attended to.

"HR and management have to be enlightened. It has to be the same as going to the doctor for a cold. Like maternity leave, there should be mental leave as well."

To many employees out there, this idea seems too good to be true. That is exactly why leaders must be unafraid to walk the talk. Mr Hsieh himself has been open about having gone for therapy several years ago, when he suffered a bout of post-trauma stress from having lost his dog in a sudden accident.

"Once you are an advocate for policies like that in an organisation, people can see if you are authentic about it. People can tell if you are not attending to your own mental health. It's a matter of going through a journey and being open about it. Leadership that is authentic should be born out of self-confidence instead of a deluded mind."

Speaking up

Ms Allen from Gone Adventurin' said a consistent dialogue about mental health is still missing from the business world.

"The biggest problem with depression is that you can't talk to people about it. That's why I decided to speak up. For me, being able to tell others was a weight off my chest and helped me get better."

On hindsight, depression was like a "Stop" sign, telling her that her life was not on the right track. She used to work through the evenings and weekends, putting a lot of pressure on herself to make a success of her startup. She stopped pursuing her interests or spending time with friends. Work became her life.

After her wake-up call, she began to make changes to take care of both her physical and mental health.

She now practises meditation regularly, has resumed exercising, and sets boundaries when it comes to work. She no longer works weekends (unless absolutely critical), and now takes time off each quarter to unwind. She has also gradually come to terms with her own expectations, her fear of failure and showing vulnerability as a leader.

"It sounds very ironic, but depression helped me to lead a more sustainable, healthy life in the long run. It helped me to rethink work and relationships. After all, is your job or your startup really worth more than your life?"

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS):1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health:1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre:1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling:1800-3535800

This article was first published on October 15, 2016.
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