Article: Are companies doing enough to address employees’ mental health?

Corporate Wellness Programs

Are companies doing enough to address employees’ mental health?

The figures reflected in the results of the second Singapore Mental Health Study 2018 were alarming with 1 in 7 people of Singapore reporting a mental disorder in their lifetime.
Are companies doing enough to address employees’ mental health?

A peer-reviewed study conducted by Stanford in 2021 highlighted four outcomes of extended video chats, contributing to the widely recognised phenomenon known as 'Zoom fatigue.' In another study from the University of Oxford in the same year, a connection was established between a COVID-19 diagnosis and mental health issues.

Notably, two-thirds of individuals with a history of COVID-19 experienced the development or recurrence of mental health conditions within six months post-diagnosis. This prevalence was significantly higher compared to those who had dealt with other respiratory diseases and the flu. As we transition into 2023, understanding the impact of prolonged video communication and the mental health implications of COVID-19 remains crucial for informed discussions and potential interventions.

As we center our attention on wellness this month, it's noteworthy to highlight the advancements in Singapore. Towards the end of the previous year, the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore National Employers Federation, and National Trades Union Congress collaboratively released the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-Being at Workplaces (Advisory). This advisory outlined a set of recommendations for employers to ensure the mental health protection of their employees. The significance of mental health in the workplace has gradually ascended the corporate agenda, particularly as it intertwines with discussions on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues within the boardroom. This ongoing emphasis underscores the continued relevance of mental well-being considerations in 2023.

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 victimisation, 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.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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. 

This story was originally published on November 1, 2021. The content has since been updated and rephrased for your current reading.

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Topics: Corporate Wellness Programs, #MentalHealth, #WellbeingByDesign

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