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Responsible companies begin to engage the elephant in the room (and drive change in the mental health space in APAC)

by Aaron Sloan  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | 24 October 2018

Last year, nine-year old Jasper became a member of the University of Hong Kong. He isn’t there to bury his nose in books however, but to reduce stress and anxiety by encouraging students who are studying to take a break. Jasper is a therapy dog - the first to appear in a Hong Kong university and likely not the last. New research suggests that more than half of undergraduate students in the territory suffer from depressive and anxiety symptoms, and the story is the same across high-income countries in Asia. These are your soon-to-be job applicants and employees and the likelihood is that up to one in six members of your existing workforce has at least one more mental disorder. So, what is your company doing to support its staff’s mental wellbeing?

The OECD reports that one in five working-age adults suffer from mental ill-health at any given time. Anywhere from 4% (Singapore) to roughly 20% (Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia) of the adult population experiences a diagnosable mental illnessi, the five most common being depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorder and suicidal behaviour. Alarmingly, there is also a rise in the prevalence of these issues.ii

The figures are jarring. Depression accounts for 15.2 million years lost every year due to ill-health, disability or early death in Asia Pacific and is the top mental health issue in the region. Anxiety too, is particularly prevalent within high-income countries in the region. In Hong Kong a recent survey found that around a third of 6-24-year olds experience moderate to extreme anxiety and mild to extreme stress, and up to 57% of the population in natural disaster-prone countries are affected by PTSD. Worse still is the fact that these figures exist despite 90% of Southeast Asia Region countries and 83% of Western Pacific Region countries reporting that they have mental health policies or plans in place.

What does mean for the private sector?
These facts should raise concerns, as a mentally healthy workforce is a productive workforce. In South Korea, a country with disturbing mental health statistics, legislation was introduced in 2017 to coerce those businesses employing a workforce of 300 or more to implement services for improving mental health, such as education and counselling for mental health.

Last month, at the CSR Asia Summit 2018, Dr. Christian Wards, life insurance group AIA’s Group Healthcare Director, shared some of the most recent results from AIA’s Healthiest Workplace Survey in a Johnson & Johnson-sponsored mental health session.

The results of the survey, which interviewed more than 25,000 employees in five Asia-Pacific countries, showed that 60 days are lost annually per worker due to absenteeism or presenteeism (being at work when unwell), representing productivity loss double that of UK employees who took the survey. Almost a third of respondents felt tired or fatigued daily, around half slept less than 7 hours per night, more than half exhibited at least one dimension of work-related stress, and one in ten suffered from depression.

One US study estimates $31 billion is lost annually on work productivity due to depression alone. A 2014 return on investment analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that for every dollar spent on creating a mentally healthy workplace, there would be a $2.30 benefit to the organisation. However, engaging with this issue goes beyond concerns around the bottom line. Responsible firms need to show support for what companies tirelessly refer to as their “most valued asset” – their employees.

What can companies do?
A study by Deloitte identified several key actions that employers should be doing to improve mental health, which will benefit their employees, their firm and society as a whole:

  • raise the priority given to mental health and wellbeing in order to move toward a culture which proactively manages mental wellbeing
  • appoint health and wellbeing leads
  • sign-up for corporate pledges
  • mental health training for managers
  • measure and monitor performance using validated tools to track quantifiable measures and gain momentum and buy-in for wellbeing programs
  • collaborate with other society groups to improve workplace mental health by investing in research and developing an improved evidence base
  • form strategic partnerships with other stakeholders to spread best practice support workplace wellbeing initiatives

Companies already taking action.

In 2016, PwC appointed its first full time Mental Health Leader. Fujitsu (HK) has introduced mental health education programs for employees who receive a promotion, through an online mental health e-learning program. Several corporations from the finance industry including Citi and Goldman Sachs are educating managers on potential early signs of mental illness and providing their employees with access to psychologists, counsellors, and GPs. And since 2017, City Mental Health Alliance (HK) and MIND Hong Kong are working with companies from across banking, law and professional services to train staff on mental health first aid.

Other companies in Asia are focused on extending their support through charity work to the benefit of individuals and their human resources department. Jeffery Tan, Group General Counsel, Jardine Cycle & Carriage spoke at the mental health Summit session of the variety of initiatives Jardine’s MINDSET charity is focused on in Singapore. These include awareness and outreach to reduce stigma, assisting social enterprises, and reintegrating recovering mental health sufferers into the workforce by sourcing relevant job openings and work training opportunities within the Jardine Matheson Group.

Embedded within Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Wellbeing, encompasses 3 targets and 5 indicators related directly to mental health. The Overseas Development Institute has stated that governments will likely fail to fulfil Goal 3 unless they tackle mental health. Responsible and proactive companies can help to drive realisation of this goal and in the process increase employee productivity, staff morale, and enhance their reputation.

Keen to address this issue?
CSR Asia and Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact are working to identify companies in Asia Pacific that are keen to drive change in the mental health space. For further information contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. at CSR Asia.

Also upcoming are our Shared Value site visits in November, which aim to inspire business leaders in Hong Kong to address social and environmental needs by Creating Shared Value awareness around mental health challenges and promote the acceptance of people living with mental disabilities in society. Contact Aaron Sloan or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to get involved.


i EIU. (2016). Mental health and integration.
ii Samy, A., Khalaf, Z., & Low, W. (2015). Mental Health in the Asia-Pacific Region: An Overview. The Journal Of Behavioral Science, 10(2), 9-18. Retrieved from https://tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/37550