Ask A Pro: Hush Tea Bar’s Anthea Ong On Workplace Wellness

Anthea Ong, founder of Singapore’s first silent tea bar, Hush Tea Bar, is a champion of mental wellbeing at work. She shares her thoughts and tips with Challenge.
Anthea Ong, founder of Singapore's first silent tea bar shares her thoughts and tips on how mental wellbeing improves productivity.

How does mental wellbeing improve workplace productivity?

Reduced sick days, improved staff engagement and morale, stronger team culture, more innovation. In fact, a study by the Happiness Research Institute in the US showed that when employees are happy, sales increased by 30% and innovation by 300%.

How can I build a culture of talking about mental health issues in my workplace?

Leaders can start by rewriting policies to be more mental health-friendly. For example, remove the discriminatory practice of asking job applicants to declare any mental illnesses. Hire on merit but put the necessary support structures in place for those who need such support.

What’s most impactful is to get leaders to be mental health champions – better yet if they can come forward to share their own mental health difficulties. That's how we open up the space of trust for our team members to know that if they have mental health difficulties, it doesn't mean they are less competent. It helps to normalise mental health by creating a psychologically safe climate. It's why I have come forward to share my own experience.

Other ideas:

  • Start with yourself. Practise self-care: take care of your own wellbeing before you support others.
  • Have empathy and be curious to learn more. Listen to your colleagues. Find out their challenges. Don't judge them based on how you think they should be performing at work until you know what causes them anxiety.
  • Come forward to be a buddy for a colleague with mental health challenges. Check in with them regularly with empathy. Include them socially, such as by inviting them to have lunch together.
  • Better yet, start a group to raise awareness of mental wellbeing in your team or organisation. Create a network of mental health champions for peer support.
  • Train your managers to create a positive work culture with open communication channels so that their team members can share their mental health challenges.
  • Invite community partners to share more about mental health conditions and the resources that are available.
  • Get creative on this journey of change and culture building for wellbeing.

How does Hush Tea Bar create a culture of social inclusion at work?

The entire team is made up of differently-abled persons – Deaf persons, persons with or in recovery of mental health conditions and an individual with learning difficulties – so we already have a headstart as an inclusive workplace.

However, that doesn't mean empathy between team members was natural and automatic. I remember the early days of conflict between the Deaf and hearing individuals, and between the hearing members too due to communication and inherent self-esteem issues. Inclusion is about empathy and therefore wellbeing.

We try to practise what we preach about wellbeing at Hush. We have a clear policy of not texting after 9pm and on weekends on work matters unless they are critical, and flexible work arrangements as a virtual team to accommodate everyone’s different needs.

We check in with ourselves and each other every morning by sharing our daily intentions at work through our WhatsApp group chat, as well as weekly huddles and monthly boosters. We use positive language and encourage each other.

My training as a leadership and life coach helps to facilitate workplace adjustments, communication and team support.

But years of business leadership experience in MNCs and high-powered leadership courses did not prepare me for this intense learning journey of leading a team completely made up of the Deaf and people with mental health conditions.

My takeaway so far is that giving 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.

In 2018, Anthea started the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup with 25 C-suite leaders to champion workplace mental health and employee wellbeing as a leadership priority.

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