Today at 10/10 is World Mental Health Day, and we would like to just take a short break from technical articles for this short article on Mental health.

I’ll start it with one incident that I experienced when I was just starting out work at a Multinational company more than 20 years ago. I was young, just graduated from university, looking forward to contributing into the workforce. Heck, I would have paid employers to give me a chance to work. My first day at work, since I was paid RM1,000 and technically wasn’t even an employee but a contract person, I didn’t have any laptop, devices or anything assigned to me. I would carry an old empty laptop bag belonging to my dad, filled with blank papers so that I could look important to work. I was very proud to be getting on the train the first day at work, with a tie and shirt and a bag filled with blank papers.

On my first week at work, I messed up at something (till today, I blame my immediate so called ‘mentor’ who basically threw me under the bus for that incident), and my boss was so pissed off at me, he literally threw the Solaris manual at me (those who has seen the old Sun Microsystem would know) and screamed for me to read the f***ing book and get out of his room and fix the mess. He warned me if I messed up again, I don’t need to step into the office ever again.

At that time, I just thought, Man, I will definitely not mess up again and went on with life and eventually, grew into the role and stayed in the company for the next 5 years. I really thought, at that point of time, that it was absolutely normal to be treated like that, or to have my career being threatened every day to keep me on my toes – because I thought, well, that’s worklife. That’s how it is. This is the rite of passage.

The reason for this anecdote is that, many times, our view of the world is derived from our direct experience with it. Just because we went through that sort of experience, came out stronger and took it in the chin, we think thats the norm and proceed to do the same for the next generation under us.

Until we come to realise, that people are built differently. And being built differently is absolutely fine.

At PKF Avant Edge, we are trying to create more awareness on the need to understand mental health. See, back in the days, there is always a taboo regarding ‘mental health’. Even when younger, in school, when we see someone acting strange, we just categorise it as being ‘mental’, or worse. In fact in Malaysia, people seemed to associate Tanjung Rambutan (that has a hospital treating mental illness) as where people would go if they acted ‘crazy’. These are notions that we, as a society, must move forward from. While we do not purport to be a company that champions mental awareness publicly, we still must take effort to understand the correlation between mental health and work productivity.

Work stress is unavoidable, especially during these trying times in Covid-19. While some may undertake work stress and manage it properly, some may find it harder. Mental health is just as important as physical health but the problem sometimes is that mental health isn’t manifested in a way that is obvious. You can’t take a thermometer and point it at someone and confirm they have challenges in mental health the way you do for physical. In fact even observation isn’t clear – when someone has a stomachache, it’s fairly obvious in his/her facial expression or general disposition. Many people may associate poor mental health with poor social skills, moodiness, anger, being anti-social and all the negative attributes we consider not the social norm. While these may be true, it isn’t accurate – because gregarious people, people who laugh and joke around and are extroverted externally – they may also be having poor mental health without us knowing it. To make matters worse, employers are often suspicious that employees may be using this mental health card to explain away certain things at work that they (the employer) may deem as poor performance due to the fact that the employees are lazy, or not up to par, instead of calling it mental health.

So it goes both ways. On one hand, employees to look at the view point of the employer – that they are paying salary to someone to function at the bare minimum of what they are being paid to do, and if this cannot be achieved, then the employer do have the right to question and to see how improvement can be done to do what they can to make the person fit the job or the job fit the person – otherwise, it may be better to part ways mutually. On the other side, employers need to understand that there should not be any discrimination, that they must make the best effort to provide an environment that caters to mental wellness and not just a non-stop cycle of pressure and deadlines.

PKF AE has some ways to go before we reach a point that we can be comfortable with the balance of both views. Instead of viewing both as opposing each other (promoting productivy and promoting mental health), we must view it as complimenting each other, and put in policies that allows us to be both productive and be well mentally.

Some of the things we provide include conversing openly about this topic and to ensure that it is not something to be ashamed of, but to be aware about. We can provide support by allowing employees to be taken off some projects that may be considered far too stressful (removing from the front lines, so to say), lowering their workload temporarily, reassigning them to other work (e.g backoffice, or for those stressed with administration, then more customer facing etc). At the end, it depends on what are the triggers/contributing factors to their mental wellness. We allow our employees to schedule with their doctors, work on more flexible timing and locations.

In some cases even, if they need complete unpaid furlough or isolation for a few months, depending on the situation, we can provide even the option to be re-integrated back to the company after their furlough, while providing informally any assistance we can afford to provide.

What we lack currently are actual policies and procedures to address mental wellness, which we are working on as a company. There are still so many questions on how to handle this, while ensuring the productivity of our company is also looked after. It is a balance, that while we have not achieved yet completely, we have at least started on, with the awareness and support for World Mental Health Day 2020.

Stay safe everyone!