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The hidden epidemic: Mental health at the workplace

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With a majority of Singaporeans neither acknowledging nor seeking treatment for mental health, Maria Plengsangtip drives home the point on why we need to openly talk about this hidden, yet lethal, epidemic.

Many times when faced with stomach aches or toothaches, we would book an appointment with our dentists or doctors almost immediately. However, we are not giving the same attention for a widespread ‘disease’ that is affecting all of us and our businesses.

It can affect as many as one in four adults and incur businesses tens of millions and 267,418 workdays lost annually in Singapore. This epidemic is lethal and costly but at the same time, it is hidden – hidden from others and sometimes, from ourselves. Yes, let’s talk about poor mental health.

First, let’s talk about the extreme – mental illness. In Singapore, one in ten adults suffer from mental illness once in their lifetime. Most of the depressed Singaporeans are adults, including 9% of general workforce showing signs of depression or anxiety.

What is worse is the fact that majority of Singaporeans are not seeking treatment. Depression and anxiety, albeit the more common mental illnesses, are often neglected by the people around the affected and even the person themselves.

The main reason is due to the nature of the illness – it is not easily noticeable to others and we always resort to attributing it as our own responsibility or simply ‘sadness’. Unknowingly, this starts to have negative implications like worsening our productivity levels and affecting our relationships with our co-workers, as well as, skipping work ‘just because’.

Following closely behind is stress which is not as severe but highly prevalent in our society that we ought to raise concerns for. In 2014, one in four working adults reported feeling highly stressed and these numbers have risen from one in five in 2012.

On an individual level, if there is anything for us to fear – it will be stress. Stress lowers our immune system and causes about 90% of all diseases. 

While stress is part and parcel of work life, the ways which people cope can vary. Without proper stress management, these statistics may be alarming signs of poor mental health spreading across the working force.

On an individual level, if there is anything for us to fear – it will be stress. Stress lowers our immune system and causes about 90% of all diseases. With poor stress management, our physical health gets short-changed. Stress, when not given enough attention and care, can exacerbate into depression and anxiety.

Why exactly are we still not getting enough attention to it as much as we should?

Other than affecting our individual productivity at work and our physical health, this hidden epidemic, if not known about the severity and treated with immediate attention, will incur costs to our businesses.

One of the most direct relationship is how medical treatment or skipping work from physical and mental problems can increase medical costs. In the UK, mental disorders can cost up to €26bn annually. As much as we know every treatment incurs costs, these figures put our situation into perspective.

Apart from more tangible costs, the ultimate reason why poor mental health is lethal is the ‘hidden’ costs that companies are paying for. In Singapore, one in four have called in sick as a result of work stress and two out of three said that work has a significant impact on stress levels. Overall, about six working days are lost and 10 days of work quality was compromised per person annually.

If you think that the increasing rate of absenteeism is worrying, there is something that we are more oblivious about – how poor mental health is causing our engagement levels. Globally, disengagement caused by stress amounts to US$300bn and in Singapore, our ratio of ‘disengaged workers’ remains high at 76% according to a 2012 Gallup survey. Should we still belittle the intensity of this hidden epidemic?

Despite the immense amount of costs that it may incur our businesses, the worst news of it all is – a majority of Singaporeans are not seeking help. In a poll conducted in Singapore, they have found that only 9% of companies use a personalised approach to promote healthy workplace culture.

Why are we still turning our heads away from poor mental health? Why are we sacrificing our long-term successes for the sake of our short-term comfort? Let us put an end to our oblivion and rectify this by addressing poor mental health in the workplace.


The author, Maria Plengsangtip, is the Partner and Consultant Psychologist of iGROW, an award winning psychological consultancy specialising in leadership, culture and engagement. Together with Benedict Lim, CEO and Chief Psychologist of iGROW, she will be collaborating with Human Resources Online to deliver an online course on Managing Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Workplace.

To register or find out more, write to Heather Ang at heathera@humanresourcesonline.net.

Lead photo / StockUnlimited



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