International SOS, one of the world’s leading health and security companies, has reiterated the importance of mental health and wellbeing in the new business environment, highlighting that COVID-19 has shifted the traditional understanding of the duty of care of employers. Statistics from a recent BCI (Business Continuity Institute) research report – drawn together in collaboration with International SOS – demonstrate how mental health issues are now front of mind for many business leaders, as 87.4 per cent of surveyed relevant experts acknowledged that mental health was now a key consideration within their crisis management plans.

According to recent reports quoting the Deputy Health Minister, Aaron Ago Dagang, there have been four times as many calls on mental health to the Health Ministry so far this year compared to last year. With this significant increase in mental health-related issues, the Government and non-governmental organisations have been working on introducing more programmes and campaigns to raise awareness about mental health. International SOS believes that Malaysian businesses also have an important role to play and it is crucial for employers to recognise the duty of care and responsibility they have in caring for the mental health of their employees.

Elaborating on the importance of reinforcing an organisation’s mental health and wellbeing agenda, Jing Tan, Regional General Manager and Director of South East Asia, International SOS, shared “Mental health has rapidly gained attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to its negative impact on quality of life, productivity and wellbeing. Although COVID-19 is not the only factor affecting mental health, the situation has heightened it. With mental health and emotional struggles being one of the most important stigmas stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that businesses address the issue of mental health head on, developing a holistic mental wellbeing strategy to fulfil duty of care responsibilities and build employees’ overall resilience.”

He continued, “According to data from our Risk Outlook 2021, 1 in 3 risk professionals believe that mental health issues will contribute significantly to declining productivity levels this year and a business that supports employees appropriately will therefore likely be in a better, more productive place than one that does not. As such, organisations need to ensure their people’s emotional needs are addressed by dedicated health experts through medically-informed health and mental wellbeing programmes and initiatives. Employees should be provided with a route to confidentially discuss their emotional health issues away from their direct managers and teams. It is about cultivating a workplace culture which understands how different employees may be experiencing different mental health issues. There is an opportunity for organisations to prioritise mental health and recognise that mental health as an essential part of the framework of organisations, rather than seen as an add-on.”

In line with this, International SOS shared some key strategies Malaysian businesses could implement to promote resilience and help their employees deal with any potential mental health issues:

Take steps to check in individually with every employee
This may appear an obvious first move to implement regarding maintaining a robust mental wellbeing strategy, but it is nonetheless an essential one. It is important for businesses to treat every employee as an individual; different people respond to stress brought on by the pandemic in different ways, resulting in a range of mental health issues for employees. The first step towards recognising these issues comes from actively checking in with employees in a one-to-one situation. This allows businesses to form a greater understanding of how they are coping through this particularly difficult period. This can also be done by carrying out Mental Health or Resilience Surveys with tools that have scientifically been validated and can uncover individual pain points.

Ensure people have and are aware of secure and confidential routes for sharing their mental health issues
Strategies which look to engage with employees should be accompanied by more subtle routes for people to gain help. Often people may feel intimidated to discuss their mental health with their colleagues or manager they work with on a day-to-day basis, as they may have anxiety about the way they are perceived. To counter this issue, it is important that employees are able to discuss their mental health issues with people within a business away from their direct teams, preferably a HR manager or someone with mental health first aid training. Removing the stigma to discussing mental health issues is an important part of creating a culture of health within an organisation. Getting leaders to walk the talk is key.

Allow and encourage employees to take breaks
To be at our most productive, it is important to take regular breaks within the workday. One useful, and easy to implement, technique is the Pomodoro Technique. This involves using a timer (the ‘Pomodoro’ original or other timer), to break down work into intervals, separated by short breaks. The steps of the technique are: Decide on the task to be done and set a timer, usually 25 minutes, and work on the task. When the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper and take a break. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break of three to five minutes and then reset the timer. After four checkmarks, take a longer break of 15–30 minutes. Then start the technique again, resetting your checkmark count to zero. This has been proven to help improve concentration and avoid procrastination, as well as providing a sense of achievement as tasks are completed.

Consider the information employees are receiving
People are bombarded in their daily, technology-filled lives with more and more information and it is hard to get away from it. Some of the information around the Coronavirus are factually inaccurate – feeding feelings of mass hysteria and paranoia. Both a lack of information and poor-quality information has been shown to increase irrational thinking. Checking in with employees on a personal level to make sure they are receiving information from legitimate sources is an important task for employers. It can help employees form an understanding of the situation in the world which counters many of the negative conspiratorial narratives we’ve seen come about as a result of the pandemic.

Provide employees with the tools to help themselves, understanding the level of personal responsibility which must be encouraged
Ultimately businesses need to be focused on creating the conditions in which an individual employee is able to take responsibility for their mental wellbeing, finding the particular strategies which work for them. This links fundamentally to the workplace culture businesses cultivate; a culture which promotes self-care and provides the tools for this can be invaluable for employees. If people feel like they have the option of going for a lunchtime walk to a local park, getting some much-needed fresh air and exercise, then they are far more likely to do so but the decision to go ahead with this still rests with them. With many employees working from home, encouraging personal responsibility regarding mental wellbeing becomes an even more important task, as organisations in the hybrid or fully work from home set up have a lot less direct oversight on employees.

International SOS has been working directly with many organisations during the pandemic helping them deal with the mental health issues brought on by the pandemic, including education and awareness, programme design, remote counselling and Telehealth support. They have also developed a Spot the Risk online questionnaire to help raise awareness of mental health concerns at work, which is available here – https://spottherisk.com/.

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