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Mental health in the APAC ad industry: listen, lead and be a role model

World Mental Health Day is recognised on 10 October each year as a reminder of the importance of keeping our emotional health in check, as we would our physical health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) attributes a theme each year and in 2020, a year in which there is no shortage of mental health issues to raise awareness to, the organisation has focused on promoting increased investment.

The advertising industry is one that can impose heavy pressure and deadlines on its employees and with a shift to working remotely, the onus on companies to watch out for staff members mental health has never been greater.

In fact, a recent study by Havas under its Meaningful Brands research series found that 58% of people in Asia Pacific deemed it important that their company looks out for their emotional/mental wellbeing. The same number said it was important that companies help them look after their physical health.

So with employees, consumer and general sentiment starting to shift into the belief that mental health is on a par with physical health for importance, The Drum asked a snapshot of leaders from APAC what they were seeing in their markets and industries.

Brent Smart, chief marketing officer, IAG (based in Australia)

No matter what industry you are in, you need to be taking mental health seriously. Being on a screen constantly is clearly exhausting mentally. But in talking with my team, I’ve learnt there is a less obvious mental toll. Video conferencing doesn’t come close to meeting in person, we miss so many physical cues and with everything so scheduled, we miss the spontaneous moments between meetings for check-ins and debriefs. Because of that, people are over-analysing and over-thinking the behaviour they experience on screens, and this is not healthy for their mental wellbeing. So as leaders, we need to spend more time than ever caring for and supporting our people.

What more needs to be done?

We need to become more skilled at recognising the signs that someone may not be ok. We need to ask “are you ok?” and mean it. We need to welcome vulnerability, empathy and openness into our workplace. We provide a community for people and to act as a community means to really care about each other, so maybe we should be less marketing industry and more marketing community.

Jos Ortega, chairman and chief executive officer, Havas Media Group, Philippines

Mental health in our industry has definitely taken the high ground within the respective organizations. At Havas Ortega, we’ve had a mental health program in place since 2018, called TALK, driven by the head of culture, Lea Nepomuceno, and her team. It was a combination of a formal partnership with and in-house programs. With the lockdown, we translated these programs to the virtual space.

With InTouch, all employees of Havas Ortega have access to a 24/7 dedicated hotline and confidential face-to-face consultations. We also have a skill builder workshop three times a year, with topics selected by our people. Internal programs like La Ledge Nights and Wellness Programs were in place.

During the lockdown, the challenge was how to translate the culture programs to the virtual space. Along with our managing partner, Hermie de Leon, and I created Coffee-19, a daily chat with five members of our Swarm community to ensure management contact with all employees. We launched Coping-19, a series of tips for mental wellness. Monthly virtual ‘Bored Meetings’ replaced our La Ledge Nights. And we strictly implemented working from home working hours.

What more should be done?

Though mental health is a major concern in our industry, there is not much public discussion on it. It’s a topic that the agency leaders must publicly tackle.

Natalie Ackerman, executive vice president for Greater China and global diversity, equity and inclusion lead, Jack Morton Worldwide

Mental health continues to be a serious issue in Hong Kong. It’s no secret that Hong Kong is known as one of the most stressful places to work in the world, with long working hours, an intensive work culture, and known to have some of the highest numbers of workers diagnosed with depression and anxiety globally. According to Mind HK, 61% of Hong Kong adults currently suffer from poor mental well-being, with one in every seven people developing a common mental disorder in their lifetime. That’s a staggering number.

Added to that, Hong Kong was one of the first countries impacted by the pandemic, on top of ongoing social unrest for many months, which has resulted in unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, isolation and fear. The industry has been actively addressing the issue with surveys, conferences, and workshops, but the bigger problem lies in the social stigma towards those dealing with mental health issues and people’s ability to identify psychological conditions in the first place.

What more needs to be done?

Change needs to start with us as leaders. It’s important that we are supporting our people all the time, but especially now during these uncertain times. This means taking the time to check in with your employees to ensure they have someone to speak to, creating an open and safe workplace environment to talk about mental health issues to eliminate stigma, and sharing tools and resources so employees have the opportunity to learn more about the topic.

Sidharth Rao, chairman at Dentsu Webchutney and Mcgarrybowen India

While mental health has undoubtedly been a fixture in all workplace conversations in the recent past, the onset of the global pandemic has accelerated both the effects of acute mental health concerns amongst corporate India as well as the need for businesses to intervene. As Dentsu International, we’ve sought to address this by enabling access to resources and tools that enable them to better manage stress, understand and analyse themselves and take steps to protect their health. From yoga sessions, meditation courses to cooking, painting and other hobby courses, we’ve had employees engage with our various initiatives to help them manage stress and alleviate anxiety. Our global leadership also consistently maintained conversations around mental health, with sessions on tackling work burnout etc being led by global leaders.

Closer home, at Dentsu Webchutney, we have been associated with Hank Nunn Institute, a not-for-profit organization that provides services in mental health, workplace stress management and other individual and organizational needs, over the past year. What started as a pilot for our Bangalore office has now been extended to all our branches, with a counsellor available once a week to address any issue employees may wish to discuss. These sessions remain completely confidential and we’ve seen a very encouraging response. As Webchutney, our culture centres around people being able to bring their whole selves to work, and to create a workplace atmosphere that allows individuals to thrive and perform, without one having to come at the cost of the other.

What more should be done?

Mental health needs to be spoken of as openly and urgently as one does about revenues and the bottom-line. The conversation needs to be about people as much as profit, and we’ve been fortunate to work with clients who appreciate and mirror our efforts at providing nurturing workplaces that focus on balance. From enforcing ‘power off’ days – allowing employees a weekday off every month or so, to be mindful of personal schedules and commitments, our clients have often led by example. That said, there is much that needs to still be done on the issue. From awareness and education, understanding the workplace triggers, symptoms and many manifestations of imbalanced mental health to rationalizing the expectations and pressures on people vis-à-vis the needs of the business, agencies in particular need to encourage open, honest conversations around mental health. Peace of mind really does begin with being able to speak our mind.

Motohiro Kazama, senior communications executive, AnyMind Group (based in Japan)

Japan is known to be one of the most ‘workaholic’ countries in the world, and in the past five years, there has been a greater focus around mental health, including measures introduced to improve mental well-being.

However, the pandemic has really made businesses and workers in Japan sit up and rethink their work-life balance, as we were all made to work-from-home.

It is common in Japan to have very regular face-to-face meetings, be it with customers or colleagues, but being forced to adopt digital communication tools has helped businesses in Japan to become more flexible.

In line with this, marketing companies are not different either. In fact, at AnyMind Group still encourages employees to work-from-home.

In my case, I just had a baby late last year, so working from home two-three times a week has allowed me to spend more time with my family and have more time for relaxation, instead of spending this time travelling to-and-from the office.

What more should be done?

Covid-19 has changed life in a big way, also in a sense, we can be considered as people who have gotten used to embracing change. Moving forward, businesses can further create environments to help people work in their own styles, both mentally and physically, to achieve results more efficiently, not just in the marketing industry, but for all industries too.

Businesses should also feature role models in their companies, like physically and mentally healthy workers, creating more motivation for people to have greater mental well-being.

B Ramanathan, group chief executive officer, Ogilvy Indonesia

I believe the industry has given due priority to this issue, especially with the severity of the pandemic resulting in an extended work from home scenario in Indonesia. One sees and hears of many initiatives and engagements that address the issue.

At Ogilvy Indonesia, we have launched a couple of them:

WPP EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a global WPP initiative in partnership with LifeWorks. EAP is a wellness programme that provides our people and their families advice and support on various topics such as work, health and money matters. A care advisory hotline in Bahasa Indonesia, face to face or video counselling is available.

Wellness webinars in partnership with Thrive. Thrive is a regional initiative with Dr Marcus Ranney and team that was launched a year ago. We have had a series of webinars and there is one planned on the auspices of World Mental Health Day next week.

‘I am here’ is a global collaboration with Pulse, a much-awarded platform, to enable and train ‘Mental Wellness Ambassadors’ to be of support to others in the office.

What more should be done?

More than ever before, listen, listen, listen… encourage people to talk by asking the right questions. The pandemic has brutally stripped the job down to just work; leaders at every level have to constantly engage and communicate beyond blinkered work exchanges. Encourage people to shut shop and actively take breaks; make work-life balance an everyday affair.

Pamela Yeo, public relations manager for South East Asia and global travel retail at Treasury Wine Estates

Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) recognises the role it plays in shaping a positive future for everyone who touches the business and its products, including to strengthen the mental health and wellbeing of its people and communities.

An Australian business with a global presence, TWE has focused on breaking down tradition stigmas associated with mental health by creating a dialogue with its team and building more understanding of mental health, having a work-life balance and supportive conversations.

In Singapore, as part of its global TWEforMe program, focusing on mental and physical health, TWE facilitated in-depth mental health awareness workshops in partnership with R U OK, an Australian suicide prevention charity, for employees to build understanding of the mental health stigma, recognising triggers and warning signs, how to support colleagues, and the importance of seeking support early.

It also rolled out Mental Health and Resilience toolkits to complement its existing Employee Assistance Program. It also offered employees an additional day off for mental health this calendar year.

What more should be done?

We still have a long way to go in breaking down the stigma of mental health. As businesses, we need to continue creating pathways of understanding and normalizing mental health conversations in our dialogues within the workplace.

TWE has started these conversations worldwide through surveys to identify gaps and actions to ensure the wellbeing of its employees.

Additional reporting by editor at large, APAC, Amit Bapna and reporter, APAC, Shawn Lim.


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Laya

Helping creatives to turn offline experiences into online income At the age of 18, I decided to leave my home and move to Italy. With no plan, no income, no idea what I'm up to. I just wanted to take the leap! Long story short, I ended up getting into a freelance design which later brought me to website design & online courses. Now, proud to be location independent digital nomad, I help creatives to turn their offline experiences into online income!

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