Are companies doing enough to address employees’ mental health?
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A 2021 peer-reviewed study from Stanford identified four consequences of prolonged video chats that contribute to the phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’. A University of Oxford study has shown a link between a COVID-19 diagnosis and mental health conditions: two-thirds of people with a previous COVID-19 diagnosis went on to develop or have a relapse in a mental health condition in the six months following the diagnosis, which was significantly more than in those who have suffered other respiratory diseases and flu.
With World Mental Health Day just around the corner, attention is turning to signs of progress made in Singapore. At the end of last year, the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore National Employers Federation and National Trades Union Congress jointly issued the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-Being at Workplaces (Advisory) which made a series of recommendations on how employers should safeguard their employees’ mental health. The issue has also gradually been moving higher up the board room agenda, not least because mental health is featuring heavily in discussions around workplace ‘ESG’ (Environment, Social, Governance) issues.
Despite this, mental health continues to be a challenge for HR. In Singapore, employees may still be reluctant to disclose health issues for fear of experiencing discrimination, bullying or victimization, and having managers who are ill-equipped to respond. Similarly, employers can face challenges in proactively promoting workplace wellness, as well as knowing how to support and manage employees who exhibit signs of mental ill-health or become too unwell to work.
Singapore is somewhat out of step with other APAC countries since it does not currently have any legislation expressly protecting workplace mental health. For example, Australia and (lately) South Korea have introduced legislation that specifically targets workplace bullying. Some countries also have direct remedies for employees who have been subjected to discrimination on the basis of a protected attribute, and where mental health claims often fall under the rubric of disability discrimination.
However, mental health protections received a shot in November 2020 with the publication of the Advisory which represents Singapore’s official guidance on how to safeguard workplace mental health. It contains practical guidance and recommendations on measures that employers can adopt, as well as details of support resources which employers and employees can access locally.
The Advisory is not legally binding per se. Employees do not have a direct remedy against their employer simply for failing to follow its recommendations. In order to bring a claim, the employee would need to bring another form of recognised legal claims such as stress-related personal injury, work injury compensation or wrongful dismissal. There have been concerns that it does not go far enough and that more must be done to protect workplace mental health in Singapore.
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That said, the recommendations set out in the Tripartite Advisory are wide-ranging and contain some very useful and practical guidance which are certainly helpful for businesses to try to implement. If an employer were to do so, they would be doing well in helping to both break the stigma surrounding mental health and protecting the business from liability.
In addition to the recommendations in the Tripartite Advisory, HR managers might also consider the following practical steps:
- As well as reviewing your existing equal opportunities policies, don’t let your policies gather dust on the shelf. Make sure your employees know they exist and receive regular and meaningful training on them.
- Consider whether your EAP is actually fit for purpose. Is the employee being put through to the right person at the EAP (ideally someone locally on the ground and with appropriate local language skills) and is the EAP officer equipped to handle conversations around mental health? If not, EAPs can potentially do more harm than good, as they can make individuals feel unsupported and even more alienated.
- Identify insurance providers who cover psychological ailments, for both inpatient and outpatient services preferably. Such products are relatively new in Singapore, but they are increasingly available.
- Revisit your workplace mental health training and disability discrimination training. Too often, training content is old and lacks relevance to real-life work situations. This can create difficulties if the business is later trying to demonstrate to the court that it has taken all reasonably practicable steps to prevent harm from occurring in the workplace.
- Get buy-in from senior leadership and management. Always easier said than done, but in this space, it is simply essential to get the appropriate support from leadership in terms of training, leading by example and transforming culture. A harder task is getting support from middle management, who may have been strong performers for the business but lack the management skills required to deal with sensitive issues like mental health.
- Consider ways in which you can promote a positive culture around mental ‘wellness’, rather than a negative campaign that targets ‘health’. Mindfulness/meditation classes and promoting physical health are increasingly popular with staff and show real signs of making a difference.
- Look out for the warning signs. Mental health training should be as much about empowering other colleagues to pick up on the warning signs as it is about helping the individual themselves. Employees often do not know what to look out for, or do not know what to say, and need guidance. As a business, to avoid liability under general negligence principles, it is helpful to demonstrate that you have given staff the tools they need to handle these issues.
- Keep an open record of conversations regarding underperformance and reduced productivity. Document the impact this is having on the business and other colleagues and the extent to which you have considered alternatives to dismissal, e.g., redeployment, reduced working hours, in-house therapy.
- Maintain accurate sick leave records and keep an open dialogue with employees who are on long-term absence. If they are left away without any contact, this can often leave them feeling alienated and not wanting to return to work.
- Don’t assume that just because you have not been directly informed, you don’t need to do anything. A court will ask what a reasonable employer would or should have known which means being proactive in seeking to identify issues.