Mental wellness – or the lack thereof – in the workplace has become a significant issue for companies as we emerge from the shadows of the pandemic.

More than two years on from the Covid-19 outbreak, workers are reporting record levels of poor mental health.

Many have been grappling with multiple stressors such as the blurring of work and rest, heavier workloads, health concerns and adapting to a faster pace of change. Others continue to feel pressured to show bosses that they are “always on” during remote work, or struggle with “presenteeism” – showing up for work even when they are unfit or fatigued.

So it is not surprising that one in four employees said they are burnt out in a global McKinsey Health Institute survey released in August 2022. Corporate leaders are also concerned about this problem: mental health is named the top priority this year for four in five human resources (HR) leaders polled by McKinsey.

As we commemorate World Mental Health Day today, it is timely to reflect on how companies can ward off what Gallup describes as a pending “mental health pandemic”, by taking a more holistic, inclusive approach to corporate wellness.

Health is holistic

At GIC, we believe a holistic definition of health is a fundamental building block in our approach to enabling our staff to be their best at work and at home.  It is the key to managing the hard realities of high performance in a fast-moving world.

Health, as the World Health Organization (WHO) defines it, is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It is “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”.

Indeed, mental health cannot be improved in isolation from other vital aspects of our wellbeing. Our physical fitness, social connectedness and mindset values are all inextricably linked with our capacity for mental resilience.

As highlighted by wellness consultants such as Charlotte Lieberman in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, more needs to be done to “make work a place of humanity and compassion where individuals can bring and accept their full selves, mental health challenges and all”.

The spike in workers’ mental health problems during the pandemic has further emphasised the importance of corporate wellness programmes.

Challenges to corporate wellness

Amid the growing recognition that high corporate performance cannot come at the expense of individual wellness, employers are stepping up efforts to address the gaps in employee wellbeing schemes.

This push for change is especially urgent in Asia, where the “overwork” culture tends to be more deeply embedded. According to the McKinsey survey, one in three Asian workers are suffering burnout, higher than the 25% global average.

While the solutions to this problem are multi-faceted and might differ from company to company, here are three key ways that corporate wellness can be improved:

1. Reducing the stigma around mental and emotional health

While the pandemic has prompted people to become more open about their mental health and emotional issues like depression, many workers still balk at telling their bosses or colleagues about such struggles for fear that this may affect their professional image or perceptions about their competency.

This stigma can push individuals into even deeper stress as they have to battle it alone rather than seeking help. By affirming that nobody is immune to mental and emotional struggles, encouraging open conversations about ways to cope and providing a supportive community, companies can break the vicious cycle of stigma and mental illness.

At GIC, we aim to dispel such misconceptions through regular communications, training resources and organisational practices that support individuals to prioritise their wellbeing.  In our most recent wellness campaign, we ran a program called “Are you ok” which focussed on building mental resilience, managing youth anxiety in the family, and coping with workplace depression and mid-life crisis.  We also ran a photo story exhibition called “From Darkness to Light” which showcased photo art of people struggling with mental health. These programmes serve to remind our employees that they are not alone, and to feel safe that they will not be penalised for mental health challenges.

2. Exercising empathetic leadership

At the leadership level it is important to demonstrate that issues such as burnout and anxiety are not taboo topics. It also helps staff recognise that accepting one’s struggles is a healthy first step towards healing and wellness.

Corporate leaders in Western countries such as the US and Europe are generally more willing to share about their imperfect journeys towards holistic personal wellness.  That said, we have seen top executives such as DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta make public his past struggles with acute anxiety in press interviews where he shared about his failed start-up venture before joining the Singapore bank.

At GIC, we encourage situational and empathetic leadership qualities in our managers to keep open perspectives in dealing with different circumstances, and show flexibility, understanding and care for team members especially during times of high stress.

3. Raising awareness of support resources

Companies can do more to educate their employees about what resources are available to help them thrive. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but studies have shown that many companies fall short. A 2021 Gallup study found that only 60% of US employees were even aware their company offered corporate wellness benefits, and a mere 24% actually made use of it.

To ensure that our people get relevant and individualised support, we offer a 24/7 hotline for employees to address all their questions and counselling needs under our Enabling Support Programme (ESP).

During the pandemic, we expanded this programme to offer staff six complimentary counselling sessions with an external counsellor. All sessions are anonymous and there is no approval process required to take advantage of the counselling support.

We leverage tools for staff to identify if they were experiencing certain mental or emotional problems, as well as a GIC Wellbeing microsite to promote awareness and provide curated resources to guide staff on how to seek help.

Principles for nurturing resilience

Removing barriers for employees to receive help to overcome their mental and emotional struggles are important first steps.

Beyond this, companies also need to offer positive reinforcement of healthy mental, emotional and work-life habits to help employees not only survive the hard times but thrive at all times. Some of the common guiding principles that companies can use to inform their wellness initiatives include:

1. Inclusiveness

It is important to recognise that people of different backgrounds and cultures are affected by and cope differently with stressors. For instance, female and frontline workers in Asia experienced even higher levels of burnout, depression and distress than their global counterparts during the pandemic, the McKinsey survey found.

Our design of inclusive corporate wellness programmes must be informed by a deeper understanding of the diverse profiles of our workforce today. This in turn requires companies to closely examine the root causes – such as cultural perspectives and socio-economic backgrounds – that impact the way different segments of the workforce deal with mental stress and tailor their wellness support accordingly.

2. Growth mindset

Rather than just setting health goals for employees, corporate wellness programmes that focus on the process of continuous learning can empower their staff to make lasting change.

Employees struggling with depression may find it too daunting to say “yes” to difficult but necessary lifestyle and mindset changes overnight. However, they can harness the power of “yet” – “I’m not there yet, but I will” – through a growth mindset to keep trying despite setbacks and incrementally grow their capacity for excellence.

At GIC, our efforts to empower staff include offering Thriving mind workshops, which help our employees identify their stress biotypes and different ways to overcome stress, as well as an “Energy & Resilience for Performance” training. The latter helps our staff to boost all dimensions of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy, which taps on values to guide and anchor the way we work, live and connect with one another.

3. Sense of belonging

Individuals perform better when they feel supported by a team that they belong to. We help our staff to identify their unique strengths and the importance of the roles they play within their teams for GIC’s mission. By affirming their contributions and building up engagement, we can foster stronger individuals and boost group performance.

We also believe in the importance of community engagement. As our staff participate in volunteer opportunities under our social impact initiatives, they develop a greater sense of purpose, achievement and belonging that nourishes them mentally and emotionally. The outward focus on the community also builds confidence and stronger relationship bonds.

Guided by the right principles, companies can come up with endless creative ways to nurture positive energy and resilience in people. As the world moves towards an endemic state, companies need to embrace a holistic approach to wellness that can help employees thrive mentally, emotionally and physically, regardless of the challenges that lie ahead.

As an organisation, GIC is only as resilient as its people.  Higher wellbeing for our people positively impacts our ability to achieve our ambitions, stay agile and harness our diversity for performance.