Companies focus on mental health programmes for employees to reduce MC rate

SINGAPORE - Mental well-being, not just physical well-being, is quickly becoming one of the essentials in workplace wellness programmes nowadays.

The Singapore branch of design and engineering firm Arup recently started a mental health first-aid training programme.

Participants are certified as mental health first-aiders who can identify risks in the workplace, and provide help if someone is experiencing a mental health issue.

"We all know that mental illness is becoming more prevalent in our society across age groups," said Ms Celia Choong, the company's marketing and communications leader.

"Despite the situation, many of us may not be confident offering assistance to people suffering from mental illness in our community."

Meanwhile, Google Singapore has been tapping mindfulness and meditation to boost staff's success in life and work.

It offers dozens of employee development programmes that incorporate mindfulness, where they learn about the practice's theory and neuroscience, as well as how to take charge of their emotions.


The office, located at Mapletree Business City at Pasir Panjang Road, also has a meditation room.

"Googlers who have attended our mindfulness programmes have provided feedback that they are better equipped to deal with their challenges with clarity and focus," said its head of communications Angeline Leow.

Across the globe, employers are taking more holistic approaches in looking after workers' health and well-being.

The 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends noted that the definition of wellness has expanded dramatically to include a range of programmes aimed at not only protecting employee health, but actively boosting performance as well as social and emotional well-being.

These now include innovative programmes and tools for financial wellness, mental health, healthy diet and exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress management, as well as changes to culture and leadership behaviours to support these efforts.

Organisations have also begun to view it not just as an employee benefit or responsibility, but as a business performance strategy.

It comes as no surprise then that the corporate wellness market in Asia-Pacific (APAC) is projected to grow to US$7.4 billion (S$10 billion) by 2024, more than double the US$3.4 billion it was worth in 2015, said a report released last year by market intelligence company Transparency Market Research.

Corporate wellness providers here said demand has been growing.

The Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, which was founded in the United States in 1991 and opened its APAC branch here last May (2018), trains people in the hundreds in their Performance course every month.

The aim is to grow this to the thousands or tens of thousands of participants, said Mr Bobby Sheikh, the Institute's APAC Business Unit head.

The course blends performance psychology, exercise physiology and nutrition to teach people to maximise their energy and sustain behaviour change.

"It's a wellness and leadership programme," he explained.

"The core belief is that if you are healthy, look after yourself holistically and think about your purpose, you will be a better leader and drive performance as an employee and at home."

The Performance Course was adapted to the APAC context in terms of its delivery and nutrition aspects, such as ensuring the coaches are based in the region so their stories and examples are relatable, and changing the examples of food and drink.

But workers all over the world face similar challenges, said Mr Sheikh. "If you look at the way industry is moving, the separation of work and home is (getting) harder and harder," he added.

"It's going to be up to the individual to make choices and draw those boundaries and live life in a very deliberate way."

Ms Nicole Seah, the co-founder of Rewardz, which offers a web- and app-based corporate wellness platform, said that companies are realising that happy and healthy employees are more productive.

"They are looking to see whether such programmes can reduce their medical certificate (MC) rate and medical insurance bills," she added.

It was to feed this demand from Singapore and Malaysia businesses that the Flabuless platform was created in 2014.

The platform offers a variety of challenges, like weight loss, steps tracking and food logging, as well as healthy eating and fitness workshops, which users complete to accumulate points for rewards like vouchers for food and beverage outlets, fitness classes, shopping and spas.

It tries to make getting healthy fun - there are steps count competitions between employees from different countries' headquarters; points awarded for eating choices based on the colour of the week; and an automatic weight logging function.

"One company in Malaysia has even stopped one of their lifts every lunch time to encourage people to take stairs to the office, as part of the app's Stairs Challenge," said Ms Seah.

Flabuless is now being used by over 40,0000 employees from more than 60 companies, including Walt Disney South Asia and tyre manufacturer Bridgestone Asia Pacific, in more than 20 Apac and Middle-Eastern countries including China, Australia and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

While there is also rising demand for these programmes in Asia, most of these emerging economies are still more growth-oriented, with health taking a backseat until things like employee productivity take a hit, she added.

In Singapore, the Government plays a big role in health promotion, with the Health Promotion Board offering workplace programmes including those for mental health and smoking cessation, as well as co-funding for small and medium enterprises for things like health screening and physical activities.

Ms Seah said that demand here has been stable but there is still more interest from multi-national companies compared to local ones.

At corporate wellness provider Performance, demand has been growing over the past five years, said its director Tan Teck Beng.

Its programmes include talks, workshops and health screening arrangements. Topics on communication, emotional intelligence and stress are the most popular.

"Global competition, cost-cutting measures and technology disruptions are demanding more out of every worker," added Mr Tan, who is a Workplace Health Promotion consultant.

"Hence, there is a need to manage both the physical and mental wellness of employees in the workplace."

As the demand for corporate wellness programmes continues to grow, companies are rolling out more programmes and features.

The Human Performance Institute here will start offering its Resilience course, which deals with stress management, in the second half of the year.

More features for Flabuless will be introduced, such as expanding the number of languages it is available in from the current 13 by the end of the year, said Ms Seah.

The platform will also feature mood logging, virtual reality-based challenges and mindfulness challenges with automated sleep tracking, mental wellness polls and goal-setting by the first or second quarter of next year.

But recent research shows that you should take these programmes with a pinch of salt.

The ongoing Illinois Workplace Wellness Study released its first set of results last year, which showed that, among other things, one year of a workplace wellness programme did not significantly affect the company's total medical expenditure, employees' health behaviours and productivity.

Employees who chose to participate in workplace wellness were already healthier before the programme began and had lower health care costs, researchers noted.

The bright spot was that employees were more likely to have received a health screening and believe that their employer prioritised their health and safety.

Ms Seah said: "The success of any corporate wellness programme depends on the company's degree of commitment. Besides Flabuless, the other aspect concerns constant touchpoints to immerse all employees in a healthier lifestyle."

"We also find that such programmes are more effective in companies that lead by example - where the chief executive officers or management teams walk the talk and corporate wellness is a core part of the company's mandate," she added.

Said Mr Tan from Performance: "There will always be studies that show otherwise, but we all know it's logical that if a company takes care of an employee's wellness, the employee will be happier, healthier and more productive."