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A Human Touch in the Digital Age
The idea of workplace mental health seems to have reached a tipping point in the global discourse and certainly in some countries. Never have I seen so many online conferences on this topic before. On this side of the world, in contrast, we continue to spend immense effort in nurturing the market – which is, in effect, a euphemism for saying that many still don’t give a damn, don’t understand the broader issue and context, and too quick to offer symptom-level solutions.
 
I fear that “workplace mental health” is becoming an overly standardized framework and a cookie cutter methodology called "Best Practices". We forget that whilst many of us want similar things (such as care and understanding), the way we need them, is different. The so many millions with depression and anxiety are lumped into a statistic, yet each and every experience is similar but different.
In this year's Sustainable Development Impact Summit, the World Economic Forum gave me a humble place to speak on the Prioritizing Workplace Mental Health Panel (recording here). We discussed the tried and tested way of leaders sharing their mental health stories in the office to break stigma. I agreed – and shared my lived experience in addition to the work we do in China and Asia-Pacific. During the conversation, however, I realized that even though it might be true that “leaders role modelling vulnerability” can improve mental health awareness in the workplace, it could backlash in some geographies such as Asia. I questioned whether such openness and showing of emotions is what employees here want of leadership, as many are used to the frame that “leaders need to be strong”. I cited the ache that I had felt upon seeing a LinkedIn post by a CEO of a Singaporean company, who criticised their government officials for shedding a tear when reporting on the hard work of frontline workers during COVID, and that a friend I know, had liked the post.
 
A few days later after the WEF Summit, I shared my journey through depression at a client engagement. I was particularly inspired by this one, as I could feel how much they cared about their colleagues, and wanted to spread the message not because it was some KPI, but because they really felt it. Mostly, they wanted me to tell my story so as to relate to their Asian colleagues, and cultivate understanding across global offices. As I read some of the questions during the fireside chat, it hit home more than ever that in role modelling openness and vulnerability, we need to be sensitive to the history and backgrounds of those who are listening, and this crucial element seems to be missing from the broad brush advice we give to each other in promoting mental health awareness. 

When people (like myself) grow up learning not to show any emotions, suddenly talking anxious feelings and low moods is not only challenging for the one sharing, but could be equally strenuous for those on the receiving end. What would they do with the story, the fragility, the rawness, the novelty? How do they even have the vocabulary to comprehend, let alone have a conversation? And how do they relate to their leaders and managers thereafter, because the image of leadership they had, was now defragmented, and they are left not knowing how to deal with waves of feelings that they had not been aware of previously.
It is a misdirected critique, to say that "In Asia, people don’t speak up in a workshop”. I do not agree: we do not give people the words with which to speak up, and we throw too much too quickly at them, unreasonably expecting them to respond inspired, when they are confused and unsure of this new arena.

Some might be touched; others might find it overly confronting and recoil. 
Tread lightly, even in telling stories and role modelling open vulnerability.
The core of mental health is people: subjective experiences and individual feelings that influences our interpersonal relationships, which are interconnected with the expansive networks of teams, organizations, and societies. It is not simply the chemical bonds in our brains nor a graph on the latest employee wellbeing metrics. It is the human, in all its complex simplicity.

If one solution fits all, we become robotic. And then, workplace mental health becomes yet another potentially impactful concept that loses its essence, erroding into commercialization and popular media. 

This is why workplace mental health cannot be solely a top-down approach. We have to hear what employees have to say about it, and what they want and need. We cannot make mental unwellness go away, but we can make meaning of it for ourselves, and for each other. This is also why I am very proud of our team for recently winning the Community Hero Award from the local district government for our efforts in raising mental health awareness – it is a testament that staying our course of putting people in the centre of our work to promote workplace mental health solutions, despite not having a sexy app or fancy data sets, is impactful, is effective, is valued, and most of all, is not forgotten.
Some may say we are not so scalable for investors, but we are relatable - and that, should be the scale.
Because, what we are all vying for behind our literal and figurative masks, but too shy to request, is this intricate human touch in a digital age.
 
On this World Mental Health Day 2020 – let’s invest in not just mental health, let’s invest in each other as people,
Enoch
Eventful...
Let us re-set, let us rethink success, though not in policies, not in numbers, not in social media posts, but in care for each other as persons. With that in mind, Bearapy is a proud partner of the Neuroscience For Leaders Summit (17 & 18 Oct) so we can have that conversation, mental health and all, and find a way to be together as 2020 painstakingly drifts by. As friends of Bearapy, register here using the code, NSLFRIENDS, for a 25% discount off the ticket price.
There other meaningful events. We will be speaking at The Executive Centre’s fireside chat (14 Oct) to elucidate why workplace mental health even matters – and how do we care for those with whom we spend hours working. Register here.
 
To rethink the impact of COVID on female leaders we will conduct an online workshop at the American Chamber of Commerce China’s Women Economy Summit (21-23 Oct, register here ) with experiential exercises to paint a landscape of our internal worlds to connect mind and body for strength in our personal and professional lives. We hope to inspire women with our stories at the Nu Women Empowerment Summit (24 Oct, register here) so they become the best that they can.

Lived experience does matter, and this is how it matters in the workplace and what your organizations can do to promote sharing with sensitivity and adaptability. Join us at the This Can Happen Conference (24-25 Oct, register here).
 
(Gotta still love tech platforms for making all these online conversations possible!)
Expand Growth. Join Us!
We are looking for people who find meaning and purpose in the work we do – and how we do it – to join the team to expand our growth and business with clients. Check here. More details about the role can be found here.

And always, we would love helping hands from volunteers to help broaden our social impact. Get in touch with us!
FOR A MENTALLY HEALTHY WORLD 
COPYRIGHT © ENOCH LI 2010-2020. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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