Empowerment, beyond Employment, for Persons-in-Recovery from Mental Health Conditions. A Personal Reflection.

Mental illness is still very stigmatised in Singapore so it’s no surprise that a high percentage of persons-in-recovery from mental illness is excluded from gainful employment. (People with mental illness deserves a shot at work, Straits Times 7 Oct 2017).

It’s easy to point the finger at employers for not stepping forward to support this group within our community. Yet my own experience so far suggests that there’s so much more that we still need to do to educate and support employers. Because hiring people with mental illness goes beyond merely giving them a job.

Hush, Singapore’s 1st Silent TeaBar.

I founded Hush, a roving silent teabar and a social movement, to bring silence and self care to the workplace (or workplace wellness) through a tea reflection experience completely led by Deaf facilitators. Given that the experience was designed to empower the Deaf at the core of the service delivery, the focus was initially on hiring the Deaf (which we still do, both on staff and on project employment basis). When we transformed Hush into an impact business last year and needed to expand, I made the conscious decision to hire only persons-in-recovery and/or people with mental illness to align to our social mission of workplace wellness.

Our first employee, who joined as a manager, is a survivor of depression of over 11 years. She’s burdened with much self-doubt from a lifetime of being told she was not good enough, whether at home or work. Yet she is dedicated and pushes herself hard, many times to the point of mental collapse. I had to first understand her story and her ‘demons’, and then learn to work with her on a new form of supported empowerment. This was done through weekly coaching sessions which we still do today. I guess my training as a certified life coach helps immensely but I’ll be lying to say it’s been a walk in the park. It sometimes feels like we move 2 steps forward and 3 steps back. She has much to offer and that assessment I have unwittingly motivates me to stretch her, sometimes without being mindful of her history and the struggles that she has internally. So the trajectory with her is one that is most definitely upward yet undulating. Yet it’s clear that she’s grown much in confidence and competence since she joined us. I just hope that she takes full advantage of her time and space with Hush to discover and realise her potential because she truly deserves to be happy with herself.

Then we had a young man and later another lady who joined us, both with major depression and borderline personality disorders. Again, I had to learn their stories — and understand more about their illnesses. Borderline personality disorder was new to me then. Both were still undergoing treatment and the lady was only just discharged from IMH 2 months before she joined us. For the young man, I had to make sure the rest of the team (including the Deaf staff) understands what could be his triggers (according to him). An attempt to redesign the work processes, especially communication, to make this work for all was also made. He finally left us to pursue his university studies as well as to devote full time in his aspiration to be a youth mental wellness advocate. I take heart that he felt he learned much from his time in Hush. The young lady, on the other hand, couldn’t focus on her work for the first month. According to her, her medication made her incapacitated and her challenges were compounded with a housing issue, and continuing complications with her ex-boyfriend. It was challenging to balance the compassion I felt towards her and the many questions from the other staff on her not playing her part with the team, and they having to do her job for her. She finally left because she felt she was not mentally ready to go back to full-time work. I still feel like I could have done more for her.

We just welcomed another person-in-recovery from major depression. Clinically diagnosed though no longer on treatment by choice, he still has suicidal tendencies and holds a very low regard for himself. Much of this was compounded in previous work encounters which he would be publicly slammed for not doing a job well. I later found out (again the coach training helped!) that his first job in sales was such a traumatic one because his manager would sit in front of him to watch and criticise him make each call! So when he was asked to call up each Hush client to say hello on his first week, this trauma crept up and caused this crippling sense of fear in him. It is easy to assume that picking up the phone to just say hello (not to make a sales pitch at all) is not a difficult task but in his case, it was insurmountable. As much as we are learning to understand and accept mental illness as a medical condition, I’m also learning that he finds it even harder to accept his own condition and therefore continues to judge himself against how everyone else is doing. It’s been a slow start to ease him in with the team’s support and I’m beyond determined to make Hush the place where he can find acceptance in his condition and thrive in his own way, in spite of it.

As a team, we have learnt much from previous encounters so we are a little ‘wiser’ in terms of job redesign, communication and team support. We are trying out a daily check-in practice with each other where each of us (hearing and Deaf) shares our intention at the start of the day and wrap up each day with what we are grateful for. We also have our weekly huddles and monthly boosters. There’s still so much to learn, to experiment, to not give up for. Because there are no textbook solutions.

Years of business leadership experience in MNCs, and all those high-powered leadership courses, did not prepare me for this intense learning journey of managing a team completely made up of the Deaf and people with mental illnesses. What I take away so far is that to give employment to differently-abled people is easy but to empower them as individuals is a whole new leadership lesson in itself, especially in listening and empathy. Mostly, I have learned to dig deep into my humanity to keep faith in what Hush and I are here to be.

10 October was World Mental Health Day — and this year’s theme is workplace mental wellness. I hope more employers will come forward to share their stories and experience in supporting persons-in-recovery from mental illnesses so we can learn from each other.

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Anthea Indira Ong is Founder and CEO of Hush, Singapore’s first silent teabar and a social movement to bring silence and self care to workplaces through a unique tea reflection journey completely led lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators. Aside from giving empowered employment to the Deaf, she’s beyond determined to create awareness for workplace mental health and wellness. She’s been selected to join 80 other global change makers to join world-renowned explorer, Sir Robert Swan, on his Leadership on the Edge Antarctica Expedition in February 2018. She’s challenging herself to rally 80 Champions to bring Hush@Workplace* to their employees, clients or partners before 25 Feb (when she leaves). These Champions will also get to issue challenges to her e.g draw their company logo on the continent, take a pic with an Antarctican penguin within 10metres, get 10 other global change leaders to do a cheer with the company name, do a tree pose for 10min on no man’s land etc. She’s going to try to do live feeds if she can! After the trip, she will share her Antarctica experience with each Champion’s organisation. Needless to say, she’ll be championing workplace wellness and self care to her fellow global change makers on the expedition — yes, she plans to stage a Hush session on the ship!

She Dares. Will You Care? Join and support her in her quest. http://www.hushteabar.com/anthea-in-antarctica.html

*more Hush@Workplace, more jobs for our Deaf Team especially those on project employment.

#antheainantarctica #daretocare #selfcareattheworkplace #workplacewelllness #hushatworkplace #leadinginsideout #nosocialchangewithoutchangewithin