If you take a deep dive into almost any Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you’ll find that it covers a wide range of wellness initiatives. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that many of these address personal concerns. From eldercare and marital counselling to legal advice and physical wellness – EAPs are a diverse set of wellness solutions for employees.
However, the prevailing definition of an EAP begs the question: What about wellbeing at the workplace? Isn’t it important to stop and consider the fact that a job or the surrounding work environment can be the stressor? Isn’t it possible that an employee is displaying a lack of motivation or experiencing symptoms of anxiety not because of personal issues but due to professional issues? These questions also emphasise the fact that mental wellbeing interventions cannot be reactionary but need to be holistic and sustained. Leaders today cannot wait for employees to reach burnout and then step in to help. It’s increasingly necessary to understand signs of burnout and identify important workplace stressors.
Globally, workplaces are slowly waking up to the fact that a decline in mental health is as much owed to prolonged and repeated professional stress as it is to personal circumstances. Perhaps even more so. Well before the pandemic, a Gallup study from 2018 found that on an average, two-thirds of full-time employees tend to experience burnout at work. While COVID-19 shines a harsh light on the state of mental health across the globe, the reality of it was coming to the fore much before.
It’s no surprise then that an HBR article encapsulating the top jobs of the future, singled out “Director of Wellbeing” as a potential necessity for companies within the next five years. The fact is that wellbeing at work can no longer be considered as a perk or an extra “nice-to-have”.
What’s encouraging to note is that there are indeed systemic endeavours being put in place. A step in the right direction, for instance, is Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower launching the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Wellbeing at Workplaces in late 2020. By implementing an expert panel specifically dedicated to solving the concern of mental health at work, Singapore has rightly placed the onus on the system and on employers.
While systemic interventions are the most desirable, especially if we want to effect widespread change that includes the blue-collar and white-collar workforce as well as the unorganised sector, it is also advisable to start at home, in our own organisations, with our own teams.
1. Interventions – What you can DO for your people
From leadership sensitisation and regular one-on-one sessions, to resilience workshops and mental health counselling, there’s a lot that organisations can and should do. These are policy-level and process-level endeavours where expert advice is necessary. This is what makes the “Director of Wellbeing” designation such an important evolution for HR. Whether it is to get leadership buy-in on investing in mental wellness, organising workshops with qualified experts, or keeping a finger on the emotional pulse of the organisation, there’s no doubt that this level of preparation requires a dedicated resource.
A full-time wellbeing expert can also determine when an external consultant needs to be called in to address issues that cannot be addressed from within. From unreasonable work hours and rude managers to an unrelenting glass ceiling, unhappiness at work is caused by a multitude of factors, some of which make for an uncomfortable conversation – All the more reason to have that conversation!
2. Empowerment – How you can BE for your people
To put it simply, managers need to be empowered to make decisions that are in the best interest of their teams. Team leads and mid-level managers require high levels of autonomy to be able to do this without fearing for their job. Real impact comes from practising what you preach. Every employee’s 100% is different on different days. Optimal productivity and efficiency every single day is utterly impossible, and people-leaders need to become comfortable with this reality.
For senior leadership, it’s crucial to set this example of being okay with failure. This can trickle down to the junior-most employees, empowering them to feel secure about their jobs even on a bad day. With hybrid and remote working becoming the new norm, we need to tell our people that it’s okay if they’re not visible and heard on every Zoom call, across every email chain, and in every idea forum.
It’s time to move from hiring only high-performing leaders to hiring more empathetic leaders. Prioritise empathy, respect empathy, invest in empathy. As the world grapples with environmental chaos, medical crises and emotional turmoil, let’s be an active part of the improving employee wellbeing. Let the evolution of ideas lead to the evolution of us as thinking, feeling humans.
This article was first published in HR Asia Issue 60, 2021