I ‘Paused’ Parliament at Maiden Speech: Workplace and Employee Wellbeing

  1. Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to seek your indulgence to use 30 seconds of my time to invite the members of this House to take a mental pause with me, to take 3 deep breaths. *PAUSE*
  2. Only we humans can do intentional or volitional breathing but we don’t do enough of that. Thank you all for coming together for our mental wellbeing.
  3. I am heartened by what might, for now, appear to be a minor but is, to my mind, a significant amendment to Section 139 of the Employment Act proposed by Clause 22(a) of the Employment (Amendment) Bill.
  4. 2. The existing Section 139 provides that the Minister of Manpower may, in addition to the powers expressly conferred by any other provisions of the Act, make regulations for carrying out the purposes of the Employment Act. The amendment of the bill proposes that such regulations may now, and I quote directly from the bill, “regulate the conduct of an employer towards an employee, for the purposes of protecting the employee from any employment practice that may adversely affect the wellbeing of the employee.”
  5. Mr Speaker, I believe this is the first time the wording of ‘employee wellbeing’ has made its way into our legislation in this particular manner. It’s clear that ‘well-being’ in this case goes beyond physical safety and welfare to include the psychological and social needs of an employee. This, in my view, marks a momentous shift in policy making from one that views employees primarily as ‘resources’ to one that truly puts the ‘human’ back in ‘human resources’ by recognising the holistic and complex needs of employees. It is, in fact, a policy imperative given the changing nature of work in an increasingly disruptive and volatile world.
  6. Mr Speaker, I declare my interest as Founder of Hush TeaBar which, aside from Deaf persons, also employs persons with and in-recovery from mental health conditions.
  7. I further declare my interest as founding member of the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a private sector-driven effort by business and non-business leaders to champion workplace and employee wellbeing as a leadership priority.
  8. Please let me share a real life example of why this policy objective is morally and economically important. Lewis from the Hush team who lives with depression and mild schizophrenia could have had a different life trajectory if he was protected by such a provision many years ago, against an employer early on in his career who verbally abused him repeatedly with every sales call he made in front of her. His mental health suffered adversely through this protracted period of abuse which subsequently affected his employability and quality of life. This is certainly not an employment outcome we desire for a contributing member of society.
  9. On that, it therefore baffled me to learn that Clause 22(c) of the Employment (Amendment) Bill prescribes any violation of the regulations to be implemented under the proposed Clause 22(a) as a civil contravention instead of an offence.
  10. We are all aware that there are certain drawbacks to the mechanism of civil contraventions, not least of which is the lack of a public record of the nature and severity of a violation, especially so for vulnerable workers. Clarification from the Ministry on the reasons behind its choice of prescribing such violations as civil contraventions is welcome.
  11. Mr Speaker, research estimates that 1 in 8 Singaporeans experience a mental health issue in their lifetime (IMH Study 2010). This means that part of our workforce will have to grapple with mental health conditions while under employment.
  12. Further, 90% of psychological conditions with adults in Singapore have their root cause in workplace stress (Straits Times 2014). Yet studies have shown that an overwhelming 86.5% of those employed do not seek help for their mental health difficulties (Chong SA, Vaingankar JA, Abdin E, Subramaniam M. Mental disorders: employment and work productivity in Singapore. Soc Psychiatry Epidemiol 2012 June 3).
  13. At this juncture, Sir, I would like to remind the House that when we refer to employees and their wellbeing in the amendment, we must also surely include workers who are differently-abled and non-domestic migrant workers. Of particular concern to me is the mental wellbeing of our 1.1 million non-domestic migrant workers. (fall under the purview the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, in addition to the Employment Act).
  14. Over 60 percent of our non-domestic migrant workers who had outstanding injury and salary claims were predicted to be suffering from serious mental illnesses (November 2015, Lien Centre for Social Innovation at SMU). Another study found over 20% of these workers suffer from non-specific psychological distress (Paper: “Healthcare-seeking behaviour, barriers and mental health of non-domestic migrant workers in Singapore”, Mar 2017). Just 2 weeks ago, it was reported (in the Straits Times) that injuries at the workplace have increased. Many studies have found links between occupational injury and psychological hazards. We cannot make light the gravity of these workers’ mental wellbeing, particularly given the nature of their employment conditions which more often than not include risk of physical injury.
  15. Yet, even as 72% of employers in Singapore consider stress and mental health an issue affecting productivity, only 51% have emotional and psychosocial programmes in place (according to a APAC Benefits Strategy Study 2017 by Aon Hewitt). More specifically, I wonder how many employers of non-domestic migrant workers have psychosocial programmes in place. There is clearly a need to persuade and push for employers to have these support structures in place for employee wellbeing.
  16. It is laudable that the Ministry, in proposing Clause 22(a), is signalling a change in how we approach workplace wellbeing. However, I can’t help but wonder if Lewis — or any other employee whose psychosocial wellbeing has been adversely affected by an employer would be in any practical position to exercise their rights under this provision? I would like to ask the Minister whether the intent to recognise and promote employee wellbeing can be better served by enacting clear and deliberate provisions that are upstream and preventive in nature.
  17. Some examples of such legislative efforts to influence employers have been made in countries like Germany, Australia and Japan. They appear in different forms to fit the workplace and workforce context, for instance: 
    a) In Germany, risk assessment and implementation of countermeasures are a legal obligation. These obligations state that work should be organised in such a way that prevents a risk to physical and mental health as far as possible 
    b) In Australia, psychological injuries or mental disorders arising from stress in the workplace are compensable and are commonly referred to as work stress claims 
    c) In Japan, the government established the “Promotion and Maintenance of Mental Health of Workers” guidelines, which though not legally binding, have become a standard practice for employers in light of the social phenomenon of “karo-jisatu” (suicide from overwork).
  18. 14. Mr Speaker, even as groundup efforts promoting employee wellbeing and inclusive employment practices are making sensible strides to ensure we do not have karo-jisatu, I think it is time our employment laws reinforce these efforts to explicitly state that workplace health and safety includes psychosocial health and safety beyond physical health and safety.
  19. On a related note, public understanding of mental health issues and the public’s attitude towards persons in recovery from mental health conditions play an important role in creating a healthy workplace.
  20. In a study conducted by the National Council of Social Service, close to 1 in 2 Singaporeans were not willing to work with persons with mental health issues while 70% agreed that negative attitudes of co-workers are major barriers to employing persons in recovery. (NCSS Attitude Study Towards Persons with Mental Health Issues)
  21. Mr Speaker, in light of the social stigma indicated and in the spirit of the proposed amendment that regulates employment practices that would adversely affect the wellbeing of employees, I’d like to highlight one such existing practice that, in my view, falls within the purview of this provision.
  22. Many employers, mostly local and including the civil service, still demand for declarations early on in the recruitment process on history of illnesses, including mental health conditions. They have maintained that declaration of any existing medical condition, including mental illness, does not disqualify a candidate from being considered. This naturally raises the question of the need for and use of such information. It would seem that such personal information does not indeed contribute to the evaluation process of the application in any material form and instead only serves to prejudice the employee adversely because he/she may
    a) feel compelled to lie and not declare any such medical history because of shame and fear of not being selected; and/or 
    b) live in anxiety of being judged later by his/her colleagues should they have a relapse especially if there are no psychosocial support programmes available within the organisation.
    An informal check with several persons-in-recovery, including Lewis, revealed that most choose not to declare.
  23. Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, it would be a fair statement to say that the government can and should, in line with the new direction and tone we are taking towards recognising employee wellbeing and encouraging inclusive employment practices, consider prohibiting to a reasonable extent employers from requiring job applicants to declare their history of health conditions, be it physical or mental.
  24. At this juncture, I would like to acknowledge that a fine balance has to be struck between (a) such a legal prohibition against requiring health declarations and (b) ensuring that our laws do not unduly restrict social and economic conduct. To my mind, such a balance could entail, for instance, prohibiting employers from making enquiries about an applicant’s medical history too early on in the recruitment process, much like what the UK has done in the Equality Act 2010. See for instance Section 60 of the Equality Act 2010. (See explanation to s60 here)
  25. Mr. Speaker, our biggest asset is our people. It’s not just because we don’t have any natural resources because even that would be finite. Singapore’s biggest asset is our people because the human potential is infinite. The world changes rapidly, our fundamental needs as humans — not so much. Beyond the basic needs of food, water and shelter — we thrive and flourish when we feel supported in improving our abilities, pursuing our aspirations and living with purpose. We can come back stronger with setbacks if we know we are not alone.
  26. Lewis has, with workplace adjustments, made remarkable strides in his recovery and is now leading a team of Deaf facilitators in operations and finance. Workplace wellbeing has a direct impact on productivity and innovation, and in the quality of life of employees. Every employee is a member of our society, therefore it is clear that a caring, inclusive and resilient Singapore can only come from caring, inclusive and resilient, workplaces.
  27. We must always remember ‘human’ comes first when we talk about human resources or human capital. There is great need to change attitudes and perceptions of mental health through education and legislation, from school through work. Employee wellbeing must be an intentional outcome of our employment policies. This may be a journey of a thousand miles. The amendments proposed by this bill does signal an exciting single step towards the direction of inclusion and diversity. I look forward to more progressive steps ahead, including those outlined above.

I therefore stand in support of this Bill. Thank you.

Anthea Ong was recently appointed a Nominated Member of Singapore at the Parliament of Singapore. She is deeply grateful for this privilege and responsibility and is committed to champion, on this platform, for mental health, inclusion and diversity and volunteerism, amongs the other many communites that she has been welcomed into in the last 12 years — including the Deaf, the elderly, single parents, foreign/migrant workers, abused women, persons with and in recovery from mental health issues etc. This is her maiden speech which she is so fortunate to have her amazing legislative angele #EdenTeoh to work with. Her proudest moment yet — to invite the highest office of the land to take 3 deep breaths and a mental pause with her, super yay! She cannot be more grateful for this.