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The case for culturally relevant mental health programmes is clear and compelling

Employees increasingly value digital platforms that help them easily and equitably access healthcare.

Over the course of 2023, crises such as war, inflation, political upheaval and environmental disasters are converging to create prolonged challenges for the workforce. It’s a heavy burden for many, especially on top of navigating flexible, remote and hybrid work environments.

Fresh data from a study by global consultancy firm Mercer Marsh Benefits (MMB) found the problem is so significant that companies in Singapore are at risk of losing talent over mental health issues. Worryingly, there are wide perception gaps when it comes to care, with 88% of companies considering themselves to be caring, while only 66% of employees agree – a number that is well below the global and regional averages.

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To be fair, since Covid-19, businesses have shown greater interest in employees’ mental health by seeking out new approaches and tools, including apps and initiatives to support their staff. But often these are cookie-cutter programmes that don’t address the broad range of needs and preferences of different employee groups.

Cultural considerations

In Asia Pacific, there are more fundamental barriers to consider because of fear of judgment and the prevailing stigma around mental health. For instance, mental health stigma in Singapore can be traced to traditional beliefs and mindsets where honour and pride are regarded highly – and mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness and source of shame for families. A 2018 study by the Institute of Mental Health found nearly 80% of individuals with mental health conditions never actually seek any professional treatment for their condition. The number would be far higher in workplace settings.

While there is no one-size-fits-all policy that can address every unique challenge, there is potential for employers to reap the advantages of more culturally-centred technology solutions. At present, many companies take a generic, global approach to employee well-being and implement homogenous measures across both Western and Asian markets. As part of this, they use English-speaking counsellors and psychologists who lack the cultural sensitivity and nuance required in certain Asian countries. Ultimately, this does more harm than good and impacts take-up rates.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a good model of well-being, which encompasses physical well-being, mental well-being, emotional well-being, recovery and a sense of purpose.

What leaders can do is identify digital support that employees find helpful via a data-driven and science-backed approach. With aggregated and anonymised data, businesses can make more informed decisions when it comes to their employees’ mental health. From there, they can research options to further tailor services based on employee groups, interests and cultural backgrounds.

Digital strategies

Employees increasingly value digital platforms that help them easily and equitably access healthcare. However, it is critical to have the right offerings so employees gain confidence in using these solutions – and, in doing so, feel less stigma about their mental health.

At MSD, a global pharmaceutical company, leaders observed that although employees in Singapore had access to a US-based mental well-being solution, the app’s usage in the region remained very low. The company decided to shift to a more locally-relevant solution and found greater adoption, almost immediately. After completing their pilot, 75% of employees wanted the new solution and 84% reported that leadership prioritises their wellbeing.

Beyond the moral imperative, there’s increasingly an economic one, too. Businesses committed to delivering impactful mental health programmes see these efforts pay off. Multiple studies have shown that companies investing in workplace mental health programmes are better financial performers, driven by increased productivity, greater engagement, higher retention rates, stronger talent attraction, and increased alignment with consumer values.

The case for investing in workplace mental health is clear and compelling. However, to build a strong foundation, businesses must understand where attention is needed, what existing initiatives to build on, where gaps lie, and how to monitor the success of such programmes.

Theodoric Chew is the co-founder and CEO of Intellect

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