With Hong Kong's workforce showing high levels of depression and anxiety – 2.5 times above the global average, the city's frenetic work culture is a key culprit, impacting both the mental well-being of workers and their productivity.
In spite of support groups calling for greater awareness to help sufferers, a competitive culture, strong stigma and a lack of understanding among employers mean that mental health issues are largely overlooked in Hong Kong.
Mental health is a sensitive topic globally and particularly so across many cultures in Asia. There are often taboos associated with openly mentioning the topic of mental health, which in turn leads to the lack of discussion and initiatives around mental well-being in the workplace.
In Hong Kong, a quarter of the workforce show levels of depression and anxiety – 2.5 times above the global average – according to a 2015 survey jointly conducted by the Hong Kong Occupational Safety and Health Council and the Whole Person Education Foundation. Workplace stress is a huge contributor to poor mental health. Collating data from a survey of more than 2,000 respondents in Asia, part of the 2018 Profile Search & Selection and The Roffey Park Institute "Working in Asia" survey found that a heavy workload and a lack of support are both major contributors to mental health issues.
Stress at work has been linked to a drop in productivity, an increase in absenteeism, and even in presenteeism – a condition where employees work when they are ill or work longer hours than necessary, but not performing as well as they should be when they are at work. The culture of presenteeism is also associated with lower staff morale, employee errors and higher employee turnover rates, which is certainly not in any organisation's best business interests.
To add weight to this, the City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong (CMHA HK) – a not for profit member-led organisation supporting businesses to create mentally healthy workplaces – reported that 76% of employees they surveyed said they would still go to the office while suffering poor mental health. Of those, 21% admitted their work suffered as they are unable to function at the normal expected level. Through various company-initiated Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), however, the CMHA HK has noted that a number of respondents now have access to counselling and coaching services, and in some cases are able to attend mental health awareness talks. While this represents a positive step forward, EAPs tend to be offered as part of an organisation's well-being policies which creates grey areas around how often these programmes are utilised, evaluated for purpose or measured for effectiveness over the longer term.
Furthermore, while a third of managers in Hong Kong reported to have been involved in supporting staff suffering from poor mental health, Profile Search & Selection and The Roffey Park Institute data reveals that more than 50% of managers in general do not feel equipped to support or assist those suffering from mental illness. What is more, less than 50% feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with colleagues. So, while there is a gradual and increased awareness towards mental health, far more needs to be done.
Opening up about mental health in the workplace
As the driver of employee engagement across an organisation, the HR function can play a leading role in raising awareness about mental health problems and ensuring the right channels are in place to help those that suffer from mental illness. Through working with management, for example, the HR function can help to put into action a top-down approach to help organisations to shift mindsets and company cultures. Recognising the importance of mental health and well-being is key to fostering a supportive working environment – quite simply because it is not just a medical issue as much as inherent to the culture and productivity of the entire workplace.
The HR function is also in a strong position to encourage an organisation-wide culture of openness and dialogue on the topic of mental illness to reduce common misconceptions and reassure inclusivity by giving employees a voice without fear of reprisal. This is an important step to establishing a sustainable supportive environment and the foundation for future prevention, or at least, early intervention. There are some simple initiatives that could be launched internally to get discussions started. Mind HK, a charitable organisation in Hong Kong set up to raise awareness and increase understanding of mental illness issues, has launched the #LetsTalk campaign, encouraging people to share a photo with the hashtag and then tag it back to #LetsTalk#MindHK. As Hannah Reidy, CEO of Mind HK states "It’s time to start talking".
Part of the taboo around mental well-being is the misplaced concept that those affected are in some way weaker, less resilient or lack determination. To combat this, the HR function could work to improve the perceptions of mental health by encouraging education on the topic as well as engaging in refining the language and discourse associated with mental health. For example, in the same way as the concept of "wellness" has gained mainstream focus within organisations –which is reflected through better work-life balance initiatives – organisations, and employees should understand that mental well-being is simply an extension of the same concept.
Mental health awareness at work
We all have good days and bad days and we all have times in which we are physically fitter than at others. Mental well-being is the same – sometimes exacerbated by work-related stress and sometimes external factors - but ultimately, we all need to understand that it is okay to not be okay. The more people understand the topic, the more confident they will be in talking about it, which is the next step to being able to practically assist someone struggling. As Olivia Parker, Board Member of Mind HK comments "colleagues who see you every day are the best-placed people to tell if your behaviour is out of character, because sometimes they are easier to talk to as they are one step removed from your home life".
That said, a robust framework needs to be in place to effectively help line managers support employees that report to them and help employees in general cope with stress-related illnesses. While some employees do attend mental-health talks, CMHA HK studies indicate that 70% of its respondents had never received any form of mental health training. More HR practitioners should receive mental health training – and in fact HR departments could work towards being able to offer all managers the opportunity to receive relevant training and support. Managers are critical in driving change and by equipping them with these skills, they may be able to notice when an employee is experiencing difficulties. Training could mean employing external support or also form part of the firm’s internal processes.
Working with managers and leaders to support employee mental health
Furthermore, the HR function could work with senior leaders to promote and demonstrate their clear commitment by supporting those who need it and in doing so, show that mental health matters. The HR function could identify and work with a senior employee to be a sponsor or champion to drive the commitment forward and even develop an internal committee or group to support mental health awareness. Taking another positive step, the HR function could assist to promote the committee as part of the organisation's cultural DNA and could adjust or review relevant mission and values policies and workplace Codes of Conduct to reflect this support.
In so doing, the HR function could play a greater role in embedding a culture of acceptance, collaboration and mutual education into the organisation's Employee Value Proposition (EVP). As a result, mental health awareness could be built into all induction programmes, and discussions can be encouraged on employees’ mental health during performance reviews, team discussions and regular one-on-one catch ups. They can also be imbedded into engagement surveys and a firm’s mental health can be subsequently measured and tracked. Job content and roles could be reviewed to ensure they are appropriate and conducive to productive work. HR can also ensure there is a process in place to help people return to work smoothly after a time of absence.
On an ongoing basis, the HR function could encourage healthy behaviours, promoting well-being activities such as taking lunch breaks, exercising, getting enough sleep and enjoying a balanced diet. It is commonly accepted that organising company events to strengthen working relationships improves collaboration, trust and openness. Corporate Social Responsibility events for example are acknowledged to have a positive impact on general well-being.
On the good news front, while many companies in Hong Kong are only at the very early stages of their journey to improve mental health in the workplace, there are undoubtedly signs of positive change. If HR departments in Hong Kong worked to implement just one initiative within their organisation during the coming year, it could make all the difference to a healthier and more productive workforce.