IF YOU are a manager or a human resource (HR) practitioner in Singapore, you are probably constantly cooking up ideas for employee engagement and motivation. You create reward schemes that entice the ambitious; you run workshops on time management and effectiveness. And if you believe in the power of camaraderie and rapport, you invest in the occasional night out in a bar.

But there is one factor significantly linked to employee engagement that many in the corporate world ignore: psychological well-being.

Creating a mentally healthy workforce seems like something that is more of a luxury than an actual investment towards the bottom line. At the very least, it is an intrusion of the workplace into what is traditionally considered an employee’s private business.

What few realise is that it is actually a sound business decision to prioritise staff mental well-being. Psychologically thriving workers are the individuals who deliver the goods. Furthermore, mental illness is a silent crisis that incurs real costs for business.


Cost of poor mental health

It is estimated that one in every five employees will experience mental illness at one point in his life. These conditions include mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, anxieties and phobias, panic attacks and drug abuse. Those with a pre-existing disposition to a mental health condition will experience severe symptoms at least twice a year.

There are no figures available for Singapore, but many countries have decided to take a closer look at how mental illness translates to actual numbers. Britain, for example, estimates that employers lose nearly £26 billion (S$54 billion) each year because of poor mental health.

The reason for the poor focus on well-being in the workplace is that costs are indirect. But mental health concerns are believed to account for as much as 40 per cent of an employee’s sick leave, which when in total accounts for millions of working days lost in a year.

Studies show that employees with one or more mental health conditions, even just mild depression, miss work at a rate five times greater than employees without conditions. Ironically, many of these absences are caused by psychologically unhealthy work conditions, including poor office layout, lack of stress breaks and inability of managers to make reasonable adjustments for persons with mental health needs.

The biggest cost of poor mental health for businesses is from “presenteeism”, which refers to attending work while sick or experiencing personal problems, resulting in below-par performance.

Indecisiveness, poor concentration, memory problems, fatigue, poor self-esteem and even apathy all affect productivity and result in missed deadlines and lost opportunities.

The rewards are great

On the flipside, creating psychologically healthy workplaces earns companies greater income. This is because mental health is a broad concept; it’s not just the absence of mental illness.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his community”.

It’s the end goal of every motivational and employee engagement workshop on the planet, and the larger picture of why companies train people on stress management techniques.

In short, a workplace that puts a premium on psychological well-being aims to bring out the best in its staff. The result: more motivated, more productive employees who are 100 per cent present and care about the company’s bottom line.


And it won’t cost much

A programme on psychological well-being sounds excessive for a company with limited funds, but for the creative, it doesn’t actually take much to launch one.

Mental health, for example, can be integrated in health programmes already existing in the company, and access to psychological first aid can be provided through outsourced providers.

Managers can also be trained to be more aware of signs of mental health problems in their staff, so they can provide reasonable accommodation when necessary.

Reasonable accommodation doesn’t mean you will water down the deliverables of your staff; you will simply adjust ways of doing things to help those who need help to function better. For a brilliant and hardworking employee, an accommodation as simple as allowing flexible break times is more than worth it.

It all boils down to a company’s ability to remove the stigma associated with the words “mental health”. A company culture that strives towards greater well-being in its everyday endeavours can mitigate the hidden costs of poor employee mental health — and even jack up employee engagement and the organisation’s performance to higher levels.


Article by Kay Vardeleon, associate writer, Sandbox Advisors, and a Counselling Psychology graduate from one of the top three universities in the Philippines. She has been in professional practice for many years, providing consultancy services to clients on personal and organisational development issues. Her services include counselling and therapy, training and development, and psychological assessment.