Ms Anthea Ong. Source: ST

Time for Singapore’s employment laws to include “clear” and “deliberate” guidelines for workers’ psychosocial health and safety requirements: NMP Anthea Ong

While branding the provisions proposed in Clause 22(a) of the Employment (Amendment) Bill “a significant amendment” to section 139 of the Employment Act (EA), Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong made several suggestions that the mental and psychological well-being of workers in Singapore, particularly those deemed to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers.

Following Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s Second Reading of the Bill to the EA — which included significant changes that will benefit employees such as the applicability of statutory annual leave to all employees and a broadened definition of “dismissal” — Ms Ong noted that this is “the first time the wording of “employee well-being” has made its way into our legislation in this particular manner.”

She went on to suggest that “it is clear that “well-being” in this case goes beyond physical safety and welfare to include the psychological and social needs of an employee,” adding that the proposed amendment “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.”

Section 139 of the EA currently states 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.

Quoting directly from the Bill, Ms Ong said that the proposed amendment will include the provision to “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 well-being of the employee”.

Citing a real-life example of a staff at Hush TeaBar, a for-profit social initiative founded by Ms Ong herself, Ms Ong highlighted that he “could have had a very different life trajectory if he was protected by such a provision many years ago” against a former employer who was repeatedly verbally abusive towards him “with every sales call he made in front of her”.

The staff, whose name is Lewis, suffers from depression and mild schizophrenia, said Ms Ong.

“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 our society,” she lamented.

Hush TeaBar, according to Ms Ong, employs “persons with and in-recovery from mental health conditions” such as Lewis, on top of hiring Deaf persons.

The Nominated MP questioned the current use of civil means of recourse in such cases of abuse at the workplace, given that there are “certain drawbacks to the mechanism of civil contraventions” such as “the lack of a public record of the nature and severity of a violation, especially so for vulnerable workers” such as Lewis.

“Clear” and “deliberate” measures to protect workers’ mental health ought to be put in place; guidelines for health and safety should go beyond physical aspects

“Research estimates that 1 in 8 Singaporeans experience a mental health issue in their lifetime,” said Ms Ong, and “90 per cent of psychological conditions with adults in Singapore have their root cause in workplace stress”.

“Yet studies have shown that an overwhelming 86.5 per cent of those employed do not seek help for their mental health difficulties,” added Ms Ong, highlighting the gravity of the stigma surrounding employees’ mental health and the workplace.

She added that out of “1.1 million non-domestic migrant workers” currently present in Singapore, 60 per cent of said workers “who had outstanding injury and salary claims were predicted to be suffering from serious mental illnesses”, and that “over 20 per cent of these workers suffer from non-specific psychological distress”.

Despite the strong link between occupational injury and psychological hazards, Ms Ong highlighted that “72 per cent of employers in Singapore consider stress and mental health an issue affecting productivity, only 51 per cent have emotional and psychosocial programmes in place.

She stressed that there is “clearly a need to persuade and push for employers to have these support structures in place for employee well-being”, which should entail “enacting clear and deliberate provisions that are upstream and preventive in nature”.

Ms Ong noted that such provisions have already been implemented elsewhere such as in Germany, where “risk assessment and implementation of countermeasures are a legal obligation”, and such countermeasures dictate that “work should be organised in such a way that prevents a risk to physical and mental health as far as possible”.

“In Australia,” said Ms Ong, “psychological injuries or mental disorders arising from stress in the workplace are compensable and are commonly referred to as work-stress claims”.

In Japan, where a phenomenon called “karo-jisatu” — suicide from overwork — is prevalent, the government has established the “Promotion and Maintenance of Mental Health of Workers” guidelines, which, said Ms Ong, “though not legally binding, have become a standard practice for employers”.

Following the examples she cited earlier, Ms Ong argued that it is about time that “our employment laws reinforce these efforts to explicitly state that workplace health and safety includes psychosocial health and safety beyond physical health and safety”.

Public understanding and attitude also crucial in creating a healthy work environment; propose prohibition of potentially discriminatory requirement for job applicants to declare history of health conditions

Citing a study conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), Ms Ong revealed that “close to one in two Singaporeans were not willing to work with persons with mental health issues, while 70 per cent of employers agreed that negative attitudes of co-workers are major barriers to employing persons in recovery”.

“Many employers, mostly local and the Civil Service, still demand for declarations early on in the recruitment process on the history of illnesses, including mental health conditions,” she added.

“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,” said Ms Ong, as the applicant “may feel compelled to lie and not declare any such medical history” out of “shame and fear of not being selected”.

Even if the applicant is successfully hired, the applicant, she argued, will have to face the anxiety stemming from the fear of being judged later by their colleagues should they have a relapse “especially if there are no psychosocial support programmes available within the organisation”.

To mitigate such problems, Ms Ong, in her suggestion to Mrs Teo and the House, recommended enacting and implementing legislation prohibiting employers from requiring job applicants to declare their history of health conditions, be it physical or mental, “to a reasonable extent”.

She added that “a fine balance, obviously, 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.”

“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 United Kingdom has done in the Equality Act 2010,” said Ms Ong.

“There is great need to change attitudes and perceptions of mental health through education and legislation”, she stressed, adding that  “employee well-being must be an intentional outcome of our employment policies”.

Bringing the attention of the House to the case of Lewis, Ms Ong illustrated: “Lewis, from the Hush TeaBar team, has, with workplace adjustments, made remarkable strides in his recovery and is now leading a team of Deaf facilitators in operations and finance.”

“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.

“Workplace well-being 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, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is clear that a caring, inclusive and resilient Singapore can only come from caring, inclusive and resilient workplaces,” she said.

“The amendments proposed by this Bill signal an exciting single step towards the direction of inclusion and diversity … I therefore stand in support of this Bill,” concluded Ms Ong.