Singapore companies find creative ways to address employee mental health challenges

Almost 50% of employees around the world report being stressed in everyday life (Health on Demand, 2021). The World Health Organization (WHO) considers mental health to be highly important and there have been a large number of mental health-related campaigns launched since 2020 (Marketwatch, 2021). A recent study by Cigna (Cigna Stress Report, 2019) shows that stress-related illnesses cost Singapore’s economy about US$2.3 billion (S$3.2 billion) a year and accounts for about 18% of the country’s total health expenditure.

Singapore ranks as the second highest among the nine  countries in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region surveyed in terms of healthcare spending that is attributable to stress-related illnesses. We also found that 44% of employees are less likely to leave their organisation if they feel supported, and 77% feel more energised as a result. Employers that provide mental health and counselling benefits create a stronger social bond and engender greater loyalty from their employees (Health on Demand, 2021) Employers who show they care have an advantage when it comes to employee retention and attraction.

Impacts of Mental Health on an Individual

The impacts of mental health are multifold and are often not constrained to purely the individual’s mental state. Some of these effects, though not as apparent, do have significant and severe repercussions on one’s physical health as well. Examples are, and not limited to mental wellbeing, physical health (chest pains or gastro disturbances) as well as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Prevention and early intervention are crucial in managing one’s mental wellbeing. The Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention organisation, reported recently that it received 18% more calls in 2020 compared to the year before. 

Just as how we manage our lifestyle to prevent physical ailments, mental wellbeing should be seen in the same light. Intervening early and equipping the population with the right skill set, knowledge, and coping mechanisms will go a long way in future-proofing the population. Having such conversations early also removes the stigmatisation of mental health. If mental health continues to be a topic undiscussed, or one that is relegated to a single webinar organised by the company, we can expect to see more negative spikes.

Impacts of Mental Health on an Organisation 

When introducing the concept of providing more mental support to employees, decision-makers in the organisation may question the return on this investment since mental wellbeing is seen as “invisible”. While the symptoms may be not be apparent at an early stage, the effects are not. Poor mental health does escalate and can lead to detrimental impacts on the organisation, most visible in the form of low employee engagement and higher medical costs.

Employee engagement can be measured in many ways, but turnover rate is often viewed as an accurate indicator for an organisation. Two other indicators often spoken about are absenteeism and productivity. 

The second impact of employees’ mental health on the organisation is medical costs. This can be considered on two fronts – costs incurred from multiple consultations for physical ailments that are actually caused by an underlying mental health concern, as well as costs incurred as individuals navigate through multiple service providers to seek help. Cigna and Asia Care’s 2019 report revealed that an alarming number of patients who visited the Emergency department for physical conditions were actually suffering from underlying stress conditions instead. 

Current Support for Mental Health by Organisations

Currently organisations are providing 24/7 hotlines, educational webinars, the utilisation of flex spending to purchase mental health support, and outpatient insurance benefits. According to the 2021 Health on Demand Study, 51% of employees said that insurance coverage or programmes that reduce the cost of mental health treatment would be highly or extremely valuable. Employees value a wide range of mental health supports, with less costly treatment options topping the list.

According to the Mercer 2021 Health on Demand report, in Singapore 25% of people indicated fair or poor mental health during lockdown. However, only 47% of employers have mental health benefits included in their corporate health packages. The report also found that only 33% of employees in Singapore feel their employer cares about their health and wellbeing, which is 15% lower than the APAC average. Therefore, its unsurprising that less than half of employees in Singapore say they received good or very good support from their employers during the pandemic. Singapore employees also struggle to identify good wellbeing support, with less than 30% of employees in Singapore saying that quality mental healthcare is easy to find and access, which is 15% lower than the APAC average.

What Do Employees Want and How Have Employers Supported Their Needs?

Cigna Singapore’s Health and Wellness Markets Insights Research 2021 found that more than 70% of the 423 respondents cited mental wellbeing as most important to their overall wellness. When asked how they prefer to manage their mental health, more than 60% of them cited “talking to a friend,” with under 30% of them citing therapy or calling a hotline. These results are not surprising. With the stigma being especially prominent in the Asian population, people are not utilising the support that organisations currently put in place. This explains the low EAP utilisation rate.

There is also benefit in examining what “talking to a friend” provides that therapy does not. Some possible hypotheses could be the accessibility, the lack of judgment and the lower barrier of entry. An example of such a solution would be behavioural coaching, where a certified mental health practitioner provides personalised support for the day to day issues.

The Future of Mental Health (Prevention and Maintenance)

As the number of employees suffering from mental illnesses increases due to changes caused by the pandemic, the need for accessible healthcare is required. To address this issue, digital healthcare tools are offering several apps to scale up the treatments for patients. Digital EAP and mental health apps are now either an extension to existing EAP programmes or a complete replacement. The move to having digital solutions coupled with a care pathway comes at a time when many employees can no longer access traditionally co-located office services. It maximises utilisation beyond traditional levels of EAP utilisation, which averages around 1 - 3%, by solving for the many barriers that employees face when trying to access short-term wellness support. As a result, employees are now able to access a suite of technology-enabled solutions, including:

  • Online therapy and coaching via messaging and live video sessions
  • Self-guided cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) wellness tools and exercises
  • 24/7 emergency support
  • Direct access to behavioural coaches on demand, which could mimic “talking to a friend” 

The Future of Mental Health (Clinical Intervention)

A structured clinical support programme serves to provide that structure for mental healthcare. It provides a guideline for providers, standardises the care given, and also serves as an anticipation for patients to have that visibility of the road to recovery (or light at the end of the tunnel as some would put it). A good clinical support programme also includes informed case managers that can provide individualised guidance for people who are seeking support. The three main stages of a care pathway are sourcing, designing, and tracking.

How to Implement a Future-proof Wellbeing Programme

Given the array of digital solutions out there and the lack of a care pathway in place, how does one create a holistic framework for their organisation? 

Here is a checklist of what you can do to implement a future-proof mental wellbeing programme:

  • What are your objectives, what do you want to achieve and how will you measure success
  • Wellness consulant will recommend a holistic pathway as well as digital solutions to help your organisation's pbjectives
  • Solicit feedback from your employees through focus groups, engagement surveys
  • Consult a wellness consultant from your insurance provider or broker to help with your wellbeing framework for the year

In Conclusion 

As we look beyond the global COVID-19 pandemic, mental wellbeing will remain as a key consideration for every responsible organisation. It is essential that organisations develop strong mental health support to protect their employees from other crises, personal or global, that may strike unannounced. While it is ultimately the responsibility of each individual manage their mental wellness, employers can definitely play their part in providing accessibility and support to encourage this shift in mental wellbeing.


Read the full report: Be there when it matters – Navigating Employee’s Mental Health 

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