Stop pretending that employees’ mental wellbeing isn’t an issue, says David Lambert, Principal, Asia Pacific, Medallia. "Just because it is not discussed widely within the organisation doesn’t mean that this is not an area of concern." 

Today’s work environment requires an engaged, innovative and resilient workforce. Many organisations have already begun to champion workplace mental wellness as a leadership priority, so as to benefit from the increased productivity that comes from happier and healthier employees.

Taking a proactive and preventive approach, leaders can pave the way by creating a workplace culture of care in their organisation, where employees feel supported and safe to ask for help with their mental health when needed.

One organisation that takes employee wellbeing seriously is Medallia, a market leader in experience management. We speak to David Lambert, Principal, Asia Pacific, Medallia, an expert in all things related to customer and employee experience. He voices out concerns around mental health being a prevalent problem in Asia, as well as Medallia's approach towards making remote work successful.

Q How seriously do you see this mental health as a problem and why should businesses be concerned?

Mental health is a prevalent health problem in Asia and this is exacerbated by COVID-19, which has brought forth new challenges and changes in the working life, worsening the existing psychological toll. 

According to Research Gate, the pooled prevalence of anxiety and depression in Southeast Asia was 41.3% and 34.1%, respectively in 2020. However, most companies in Asia do not see the full extent of this issue, because they have never asked employees and assume that everything is going well because employee voices are hidden.

In Asia especially, there is still a social stigma attached to speaking up about one’s mental health issues. Companies and CEOs can play a key role in reducing this stigma by initiating conversations with employees and letting them know that is perfectly acceptable not to feel alright, and that the company is here to help.

For this to happen, there has to be a mindset shift. Companies need to acknowledge that managing employees’ mental wellbeing is not merely a checkbox or a nice-to-have. Rather, a company’s performance is largely dependent on the employees’ wellbeing. A tired, frustrated and stressed workforce affects morale and productivity. In contrast, a fully engaged and invested workforce is the key to unlocking competitiveness.

Q What are the signs that employers must take note of that indicate their employees may not be okay?

It is important to pay attention to what employees are saying, doing or not doing, and how they are feeling. This is tough because some people undergo a range of emotions, from feeling depressed or suicidal, to just not being ok today for a reason. In addition, spotting the signs early may be tricky as people react differently to stress.

Some red flags to look out for are severe mood swings, low productivity, and a decrease in work quality from someone who usually performs well otherwise.

If employees withdraw from social situations such as frequently skipping out on meals, or have not taken a paid leave in a long while, these are cues for companies to check up on their employees. Unfortunately, many companies have not gone deep enough in the understanding these signs and cues.

Q With remote working expected to continue in many organisations, what can employers and HR do?

The key is to build a safe and encouraging environment for employees to voice their feelings, and be assured that it is perfectly normal to show vulnerability. This involves a cultural change, starting from the CEO openly discussing about mental wellbeing.

While most companies have mental health-related reading materials and resources for employees, these are often hidden as obscure links within the intranet. Rather than prominently featuring sales training materials on the intranet, companies should rethink the approach by focusing on employees’ wellbeing.

Annual employee feedback surveys are common, but this is not enough, particularly with the lack of in-person interactions now. Sending quarterly or adhoc pulse surveys to address concerns as and when they arise, or when there are unexpected events, such as a restructuring or a change in manager, will enable deeper on-ground listening.

It will be a big miss if the survey questions revolve around the company. They should speak to a specific ask, that is focused on employees’ mental wellbeing. Areas to be covered may include the level, drivers and causes of stress. To protect the authenticity of findings,a nd extract more accurate and actionable data, employees’ identity can be kept anonymous during the survey

What we have found over the years is that contrary to popular belief amongst companies, employees are more than willing to share feedback if there is a safe communication channel to do so.

Many employers are often surprised at the amount of engagement and creative solutions they source from the ground.

Q Medallia is pioneering new ways to integrate the employee experience and using AI to make predictive insights. How can technology help detect and help address employees’ mental wellbeing?

Technology provides a judgement-free zone for employees to candidly share their feelings, and for employers to recognise signs that their staff need help.

Experience management software, which is designed to catch trigger words or upset tones of voice, can analyse and look for signals that indicate mental health risks. From survey feedback to daily interactions over messages and calls, text, video and voice analytics can be applied to identify negativity and issues from massive data sets.

For instance, if an employee says he is facing ‘financial hardship’, ‘I can’t pay my rent,’ ‘I’m late on my bills’, these will be automatically flagged out for immediate response. Additionally, AI can identify any type of negativity in a response, even if it is not in the existing set of crisis-related topics. In other words, AI is able to bubble up issues that a company may not even have thought of. This is very important, given the evolving COVID-19 situation.

Q Wouldn’t it be more effective if the employer and HR can have face-to-face meetings with employees to find out what’s causing their stress? 

In Asia, there is still a stigma associated with mental health. Employees are reluctant to open up to their bosses as there is always an inherent fear of jeopardising their jobs.

Technology bridges this gap. According to a report from Workplace Intelligence and Oracle, 82% say that AI is better than humans in providing support. 68% say they would prefer interacting with a robot on issues like stress and anxiety, as opposed to a human manager.

Experience management technology can act as non-intrusive listening posts to collect non-bias data, analyses mental health risk and routes alerts in real time to the appropriate responders.

Q Can you share an example of how your approach has helped Medallia's workforce?

Our technology enables us to measure employee experience in all areas including onboarding, work-life balance, benefits, growth and development, and manager relationships. We use the feedback from our employees to understand what is driving employee engagement and which investments we need to make to improve.

To help support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, we introduced new programmes including a virtual fitness benefit, flexible work schedules, remote learning support hours, and caregiver support hours.

Q With technology taking over more parts of the employee lifecycle, how do we retain the 'human element' in our relationships, while leveraging technology to support our people decisions?

It starts from the CEO and the management team walking the talk and showing that it is OK not to be OK. Practising vulnerable leadership and openly discussing about wellbeing will enhance trust and rapport, and create more authentic on-ground conversations. Technology and data are supporting tools to help organisations enhance employee experience and make more informed decisions.

Q What is your view on weaving in mental health & wellbeing management as a KPI for people managers?

I think this will send a strong signal that managing employees’ mental wellbeing is critical in driving the success of any organisation. Employee voice is often the most authentic signal in reading a company. The faster employers listen and respond, the better the organisation can be.

Q To make remote work successful and lift the spirits of employees, do management and HR need to rethink assumptions and the way they manage their remote workforce?

The underlying message remains: stop pretending that employees’ mental wellbeing isn’t an issue. Just because it is not discussed widely within the organisation doesn’t mean that this is not an area of concern.

Managing mental health of any workforce, not just a remote one, requires an ecosystem of strong leadership, HR practices, technology and trust.

Photo / Provided [David Lambert, Principal, Asia Pacific, Medallia]

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