You could say Wong Sze Keed had her work cut out for her. Assuming a new role just as Singapore emerged from its nationwide partial lockdown — as Chief Executive Officer of AIA Singapore, no less — meant it wasn’t business as usual.
In addition to overseeing and managing AIA’s operations in the local market, Wong has been dedicated to championing mental well-being: Her tenure saw the launch of the Resilience Mindset programme, a complimentary quarterly four-week course originally intended for employees and corporate customers, and later extended to up to 1.2 million members of the Singapore workforce, that helps them adopt a positive outlook daily.
Here, Wong discusses with A Magazine the value of making employee mental health a priority.
What have been the biggest challenges of assuming your role during the Covid pandemic, and how did you overcome them?
When I assumed the role in July 2020, the pandemic was already transforming the way we interacted with our customers. It fundamentally changed how businesses like ours have to operate virtually and utilise technology better, all while keeping the high-touch element crucial to our craft as insurers. Covid-19 also brought with it new norms of working and living that impacted our staff deeply.
Thankfully, we were already in good stead when the pandemic hit. AIA Singapore invested heavily in digital enablement as part of our three-year comprehensive digital transformation roadmap. We have already been embracing new norms and this has placed us in a unique position of growth, where we can continue to innovate and enhance the ways we collaborate and effectively connect with our customers.
When, how and why did you come to champion mental wellness in particular? Why are you passionate about promoting mental well-being?
There is still a social stigma around mental wellness that we must overcome. When we first introduced the AIA Beyond Critical Care Plan in 2019 (the first insurance policy in Singapore that covers five mental illnesses), we learned from our insurance representatives that they initially struggled to discuss the topic of mental health with their customers because of the negativity it brings. This was alarming. As champions of holistic wellness, we believe that every aspect of our well-being — from physical and financial to mental — is equally vital to living healthier, longer, and better lives.
While we are fortunate to have more discussions around mental health in recent years, there is still much to be done to support Singaporeans’ mental wellness. With 1 in 7 people in Singapore estimated to experience a mental disorder in their lifetime and more individuals working from home reporting higher stress and increased anxiety levels, we are responding to this urgent call of safeguarding the nation’s mental health now more than ever.
What are the mental wellness issues and management techniques that may be unique to the financial services sector?
In all markets, there is an enormous amount of pressure on the financial services sector to perform. This has led to staff working longer hours in ever-more demanding environments, eventually taking a toll on many workers’ mental well-being. In the U.K., for instance, 62 percent of financial sector firms reported an increase in mental-health-related illness in the workplace in 2018.
I am a firm believer in companies — in our sector or not — needing to create a culture of putting people’s overall well-being first. To truly move the needle and show our employees that we really care, we need to make the necessary investments in improving their mental wellness and managing their daily stress. Whether it’s by investing in expanded employee benefits or mental resilience programmes or arranging virtual lunches to foster camaraderie, employers across all industries have to provide their staff with the necessary protection, support, and toolkit to ensure their mental well-being.
Why should employers look after the mental wellness of employees, especially if mental wellness is a long-term journey? Should it be on employees to look after themselves?
In my view, employers should not just be employers to their employees — we are their partners. They are the force behind our success and as their leader, it is our responsibility to support them through good times and bad, even when they can make positive work-life choices on their own.
Are there any measurable benefits of prioritising mental health in the workplace?
To talk about its benefits, we need to talk about the costs of not prioritising mental health in the first place. It is well documented that employees’ mental health problems have an impact on employers and businesses directly through increased absenteeism, negative impact on productivity and profits, and an increase in costs to tackle the problem.
In a recent study that analysed the historical investment and savings data from seven Canadian companies on their mental health investment journey, Deloitte found that organisations investing in workplace mental health programmes appear to be mitigating the rising costs of doing nothing at all. They found that the benefits of prioritising employees’ mental health include elevating employee productivity, which in turn enhances the organisation’s overall performance in the longer term.
How do you look after your own well-being?
For me personally, looking after my own well-being means making time for the people and things that matter to me apart from the work that fulfils me. It means making work-life choices that work for me, rather than hoping for a balance to come through. I believe this is important for people to remember, especially amid a pandemic that thinned the boundary between work and home. To maintain that equilibrium, we can draw back the line ourselves if we choose to.
Having an extremely busy schedule at work doesn’t stop me from making time for myself every morning. It’s important to keep myself physically and mentally fit so that I can do more for others. I start most of my mornings with an exercise routine as it helps me to stay focused and refreshed throughout the day, and I put a hard stop on most evenings to ensure I spend quality time with my family after work.
I devote my weekends solely to my family, spending quality time with my husband and two daughters (aged 16 and 18). They love sports so I join them at the gym, and we run together in our free time. I also set aside couple time by playing golf with my husband as well as “me time” by watching the TV and reading.
I avoid checking my emails past working hours, if I can help it. These all help me switch off when the workday ends so I can focus on spending quality time with my loved ones, which tremendously helps with my overall well-being.
What’s your vision for how society perceives what it means to be healthy?
Our vision is to encourage Singaporeans to prioritise their holistic wellness — not just in the physical sense. As a leading insurer in the health space, we take a holistic and comprehensive approach to protecting society’s well-being across their financial, physical, and mental health. Our aim at AIA Singapore is to support even more Singaporeans to achieve their health goals, where in turn they can reap the rewards of making simple, significant actions to live healthier, longer, and better in every sense of the term.