Stress is normal… or is it?

In a 2019 study by global health services company Cigna, 92% of Singaporeans are stressed at work, more than the global average of 84%. We know that a healthy dose of stress drives us to be motivated and productive. However, just like eating 50 apples a day can get you sick, too much stress can break a person.

Yet, Singaporeans often talk about stress as something that can’t be helped.

Bopian lor” - sounds familiar?

Or worst yet, stress is sometimes used as a measure of achievement. The busier we are, the more stressed we feel, but hey, busy is good right? Afterall, for many of us, ourself-worth is closely linked to our jobs. The more work we do, the more the sense of accomplishment.

It is our normalisation of stress and the perceived helplessness that allow it to be more often than not, ignored. Such mindlessness weaves invisibly amongst us, forming what we often don’t scrutinise enough - culture; a working culture where stress and mental health are secondary to work productivity.

To deal with it, we can keep telling people to educate themselves about mental health, but from where do people start? It’s akin to throwing someone into a sea and telling them to figure out how to swim on their own.

A more effective way is to engage people, not tell people what to do. As such, Milieu conducted a survey in July 2020 to get 1,000 employed respondents in Singapore to talk about mental health in their workplaces.

Look through individuals to understand mental health

We first find out what the top causes of stress are. Based on the top responses, workplace stress is typically caused by unrealistic workload and deadlines, and the lack of appreciation and emotional support.

These highlight that mental health is more than an individual’s problem - it’s about the systems and social environment too. What does this tell us then? You and I are responsible for contributing to a healthy work culture, more than we have ever thought.

Look beyond results to produce results

When left unattended, stress in the workplace can lead to burnout. In our survey, 68% of respondents indicated that they have experienced burnout. Yet, we still have employers and managers who choose to focus on productivity and often neglect mental health of employees, when it is ironically counterproductive to do so.

According to WHO (World Health Organisation), “workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains”.

Case in point: 39% of respondents indicated that they have taken medical leave due to stress at work, and 61% have considered quitting their jobs for the same reason.

No doubt that in Singapore, mental health topics remain a stigma. There is still much left on the to-do list to improve mental well-being among working adults.

Look at what’s around - and what’s not

The top initiatives that respondents found helpful for improving mental well-being indicate a need for more work-life balance and control over their work arrangements. Additionally, there is interest to learn more about dealing with mental conditions, as well as the desire for managers to be proactively checking in with them.

So, at this point, how well are companies supporting their employees? There were some disparities that we’ve found based on responses.

1. The baseline: awareness of resources

Firstly, only 37% are aware of the mental health-related resources available at their workplace (if any at all), with just 34% who are satisfied with their workplaces' efforts for maintaining mental well-being of employees.

Mental health related resources are not ornaments for brand image - they should be comprehensive, accessible, and helpful for employees.

2. Employers and managers are not well-equipped

82% agreed that employers are responsible to ensure the mental well-being of their employees. However, only 42% of managers feel well-equipped to help improve subordinates' mental well-being.

Much has already been said to urge leaders to pay attention to employees’ mental health, discussing the “psychological capital of an organization” as an “invaluable resource”. Workplaces need to ensure that they are putting the right people in leadership positions - the ones who can see productivity from a humane perspective, and not just as numbers and figures. Ensuring that we train our managers to lead with compassion could well be the answer to improving the workplace’s productivity.

3. Lack of trust

While 39% want more proactive check-ins, employees may not be open to talk about their mental health issues. Only less than half of employees are found to feel comfortable talking to their managers about stress.

This could also be a result of the prevalence of work culture that is unreceptive or ignorant of employees’ mental health, leading to a lack of trust that the workplace is a safe space to discuss mental health.

So, what does all of these say? Mental health requires multi-pronged solutions that extend beyond the individuals themselves. Or simply put, mental health is everybody’s business in the workplace, like it or not.

Look differently

Recently, it was declared that mental health declaration for job applicants is not required in Singapore unless it’s a job-related requirement. While this comes from a good place, it is pertinent that this shouldn’t be mistaken as a cue that mental health should be kept hush-hush in workplaces. Fair systems, open discussions, and safe spaces formulate a firm foundation for protecting employees’ mental well-being.

In addition, the onus of work-life balance has always been on workers themselves to manage their own time, but conversations are slowly moving away from this notion. Can we start to move on from talk about work-life balance, to actually doing it?

As Covid-19 has shown, all we need is a push towards radicalising the way we do things, to drop previous assumptions and understandings of productivity.

Work culture is one lens that we look at to understand broader society. Similarly, the failure to adequately address mental health in workplaces is telling of the larger gaps we have yet to adequately address in society.

Where mental health is seen as “weak-not-sick” and “dangerous”, we need to look differently, as well as to look beyond the four walls of the office to understand and tackle this issue. As this article’s title reads, mental health is everyone’s business - yours included.

Enjoyed this article? We conducted this survey not only in Singapore, but Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam too! Check out the infographic here.