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CMHA Singapore – part of the start of a national conversation

CMHA Singapore – part of the start of a national conversation
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Laure de Panafieu and Kenneth Choo talk about the galvanising effect of the pandemic and how the Singapore Chapter is helping to break down stigma.

When the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) was established in the UK in 2012, its founding members were pioneering firms who had recognised the business critical need to prioritise their people’s mental health. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a rude awakening to this need. It has accelerated the conversation elsewhere in the world too, and the CMHA has been invited by nations’ business communities to spearhead their efforts.

Laure de Panafieu is a Partner at global law firm Linklaters and has actively sponsored CMHA Singapore since it launched during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Kenneth Choo is Managing Director of Heineken Asia Pacific and he and Laure were appointed co-Chair of CMHA Singapore in 2021. They spoke to us about the galvanising effect the pandemic has had, and how the Chapter is helping to break down stigma in Singapore.

What effect has the Covid-19 pandemic had on awareness of workplace mental health in Singapore?

Kenneth: “The pandemic was really an eye-opener for us in Singapore. It made us realised the importance of mental health. Covid-19 struck and people started to realise working from home and the stress is of a really different level not experienced before at a workplace.”

Laure: “Covid-19 has thrown all of us into a new world of work, with remote working having become the new norm overnight, and giving rise to various challenges, such as the blurring of boundaries between home and work, the challenges posed to teamwork and collaboration, and more fundamentally, heightened risks of isolation and burnout.”

How has CMHA Singapore been able to encourage this important new topic of conversation?

Kenneth: “Amongst the members, we shared and increase our awareness of mental health development at the workplace We shared our experience and learn from both the global network and from each other.  Having a community, especially those that have gone ahead of us, to actually share and put questions to.

“The credibility and the reputation of the companies in the alliance gives us the comfort that we are on the right track. Heineken is really a new member to this chapter, and we are one of the ones that wanted to join and learn from this. It’s really safety in numbers.”

Laure: “I spent the first 12 years of my career in our London office, and over that period, I witnessed a real shift towards mental health related discussions, allowing for better awareness, understanding and critical medical and emotional support to be at hand, where needed. When I moved to Asia in 2011, mental health was just not on any visible radar. And I quickly realised that the stigma around this topic in this part of the world remained very strong and omnipresent, meaning that medical and psychological support was either rarely sought, or too late, let alone available at all, unsurprisingly contributing to the severe and long-lasting effects of underlying mental illnesses. In that context, as leaders, it is absolutely imperative that we do our part to break the stigma and lead by example in starting conversations, showing our own humanity and vulnerability to create a safe and caring environment for all. Being part of CMHA provides us with a fantastic head start in Singapore, allowing us to leverage on all of the tools and equipment that have been built and refined by the broader network over the years, adapting them, as needed, to appropriately fit the pace and starting point of Singapore’s conversations.

What would you say to business leaders in Singapore who haven’t yet prioritised the mental health of their workforce?

Laure: “In short, leaders cannot drive strong, sustainable, and long-lasting business results and performance without a strong and effective team.  To achieve this, our people need to know and believe that we care about them that we are truly and genuinely attentive to their well-being and that our actions match our speech.  In high-performing environments, mental health risks are very real and need to be recognised and properly addressed. Creating that safe space is fundamental to create a thriving business for the long term.  To me, being an effective and inspiring leader has to start by being brave enough to embrace vulnerability and face these difficult conversations.”

Kenneth: “Indeed, have a psychologically safe environment encourages people to talk about it and promotes positive mental health development, and ultimately, happiness at work. We are all aware that with better mental health, our employees’ productivity will also increase. For business leaders this is really a platform for you to show your authenticity, show your empathy, and practise active listening from your people about their work-life balance.”

Why does the mental health agenda matter to you?

Laure: “When I became a partner at Linklaters in 2017, I was in awe at the courage shown by our senior leadership, well before the COVID-19 pandemic gave mental health its seat at the table, in placing mental health on the agenda at our global annual partner conference. I vividly remember the very emotional and personal stories shared by some of our leaders, in front of a +400-partner audience. In a high performing environment where excellence, pushing the boundaries and over-achievement are part of our daily job showing any kind of weakness is highly counterintuitive. Those poignant stories were incredibly valuable in reminding all of us that we needed to open up about our own struggles in order to overcome them together, and that we were stronger, not weaker, in doing so.

“I was so inspired that I decided to lead our own mental health initiatives in Singapore, embracing that vulnerability by sharing my story, alongside those of some of our leaders in the region, as the first of many initiatives that have since followed. Looking back, our work has been instrumental in breaking the stigma around mental health and creating a safe environment for our people in Singapore and other parts of the network and, whilst the COVID-19 crisis has thrown all sorts of new challenges on this front, the foundations we have built will enable us to tackle those better, together..”

Kenneth: “One of my personal purposes is to make people happy, At the workplace, stress level is increasing, exasperated by Covid-19 and other social-political-financial crisis. The stress easily converts into self-doubts and fear. When we are able to have real conversations, we will be able to conquer the fear, and turn it into care, encouragement and energy to move forward. If we succeed in creating a safe environment at the workplace, we will be on track towards a happier life.”


CMHA Singapore