The COVID-19 pandemic and work from home situation have shed light on the issue of mental health. According to the latest insights from McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific, the mental health stigma remains prevalent in many Asian markets and is deeply rooted in a culture of collectivism and the concept of "face", which deems one to be undesirable or shameful to the family if he or she is different.

The agency said that the growing demands of modern life, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have created greater pressures for individuals, with 48% in China, 45% in India and 40% in Japan agreeing that stress is the biggest threat to wellness. APAC markets also index higher than the global average of 30.5%, with 42.5% for Japan and 31.6% for China, as people are feeling more anxious than before due to COVID-19. Individuals in the advertising scene are also not spared from the stress.

According to ShuFen Goh, co-founder and principal of R3, the stress and anxiety amplified by the pandemic has worn down even the most vigorous alpha leaders, who have been thriving on an always-on multiple time zone culture. They look a little more tired, a little more human, she said, adding that it is now widely recognised that stress is not just the root cause of physical ailments but mental conditions.

"So I would like to see more empathy from leaders, who can start by sharing more openly about their own struggles and coping strategy. Nobody is bulletproof. Removing the stigma around mental wellness is key to us gaining more understanding of how we can create less anxiety, less noise and more music for our soul," she added.  

As individuals and companies globally celebrated World Mental Health Day on 10 October,  MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to agency leaders in Southeast Asia to find out the biggest change they hope to make when it comes to mental health.

Rafidah Rashid, MD, DeVries Singapore


I want to reset the "hustle culture" that is rooted in decades of agency folks romanticising the grind of long hours. It won’t be overnight, but we can gradually impact a cultural shift toward work-life balance with the radical changes we’ve made: TGIF at 3 pm, monthly Monday off, monthly resource review.

Chomaine Chai, executive director, GOLIN Singapore chomainechai

Honest conversations and striking a balance across every touchpoints. Going for the long mile on the PR agency treadmill requires a sturdy collaboration between agency leaders, clients and the people. Work our hours, prioritise with flexibility, be optimistic even in times of uncertainty, and let’s be open about our emotions. Embracing these go a long way.

Himanshu Shekhar, CEO, GroupM Indonesia and Vietnam


In our industry, the agency culture has historically been about performance under any context. COVID-19 has challenged and stretched this further. Naturally, people shy away from acknowledging, sharing the mental health aspects for unwanted attention. We need to acknowledge, bring in experts and jointly work with clients on helping our industry.

Jacqui Lim, CEO, Havas Media Group Singapore and chief integration officer, Havas Group Singapore


One change I would like to make is to go beyond the surface to take tangible steps to put our money where our mouth is. Most people want their company to listen harder, review structures and workload management more aggressively, and implement meaningful support systems to aid them in managing their stress points whenever they need it. As a company, it could even mean taking difficult steps to review the kind of clients we work with, changing our hiring strategies to ensure we value empathy in supervisors as much as we value work skills, and providing the flexibility and autonomy to customise a work-life regime that allows the individual to thrive at their best.

Ryan Ong, managing partner at Kingdom Solutions


What I’d like to see changed, which is not constrained to just the advertising scene, is to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health. One of the ways to achieve this is to encourage employees to speak up about their struggles and provide a safe space at work for them to share their stories.

Anish Daryani, founder and president director at M&C Saatchi Indonesia


Ad pros are vulnerable to mental health issues, but agencies are not to blame. The hourly model of defining value is responsible. If the agency’s value was determined by the quality of the ideas and the impact on business (results), they’d be more profitable, they’d staff up more appropriately, and then they’d overcome mental health issues attributed to the profession. That’s what I would change to improve mental health in our business.

Lara Hussein, CEO and founder of M&C Saatchi, Kuala Lumpur


It’s been a tough year and the impact of Covid has depleted our energy and motivation. It was a time where our mental health was vulnerable. As a leader, I was very aware of this as I also needed to ensure my mental health stayed strong to show compassion and understanding to our teams. I made it clear that mental health was a priority and we needed to make adjustments where possible on work hours, be flexible as everyone’s needs are different. And it is important that we understand the stresses facing employees and care for them individually. The biggest change I want is for people to develop a positive mindset, to be open about their situation, and talk about it. A step forward is for us to reduce stigma around mental health so people are open to have candid conversations and seek support, mental health can impact anyone and we can’t ignore it.

Pradhana H, MD, Magnus Digital Indonesia

We need to put more effort into the team’s mental wellness, just like a business win. We need to break the stigma. We provide the team with a personalised care package to show that Magnus sees and appreciates them each and individually. Recently, we are implementing unlimited unpaid leave for those who need the extra time away. Combined with our flexible work culture and new leave policy, Magnus aims to lead our employees towards a balanced life through a positive workplace culture.

Sean Sim, CEO at McCann Worldgroup Malaysia


Agencies need to relook at HR. Stop staffing the department with just administrators, career counsellors, or training schedules. We need to hire the kind of managers who are qualified, or well-versed with the issues of mental health, and empower them to act. Even if that leads to making changes in the agency operations.

Bala Pomaleh, CEO, Mediabrands Malaysia


Despite so many conversations right now around mental health, there is still a lot of stigmas attached that is stopping people from speaking up. My hope is for more leaders and organisations to acknowledge this and encourage people to open up about their struggles so they may get help from the resources available. My message is "It’s OK to be not OK".

Lina Marican, MD, Mutant Communications

lina marican

According to the PRCA APAC Mental Health report - high workloads and long hours are the top two triggers impacting mental health in our region. To counter this, agencies will need to proactively plan capacity and have conversations with their teams and clients to make work hours efficient. It's entirely possible to plan ahead with resourcing, and set respectful boundaries from the start so individuals have the time to be creative, do impactful work that clients love, and have a life outside of work.

Ian Loon, CEO, media and digital for Publicis Groupe in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia


It really comes down to the smallest things that matter every day. Keeping meetings purposeful and within time; that not everyone would need to show their face on camera; that not everything deserves an urgent status; keeping meal-times sacred; encouraging block-outs for the evening spin class; communicating during humanly hours and only through official channels.

What are your insights on how agencies can improve the mental health awareness of their employees? Email me at .

To understand and better cope with the pressures of modern life, join us on 7-8 December 2021 at our National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference 2021 This year, our focus is on promoting the overall mental health and emotional well-being of our community as we navigate these uncertain times.  At the heart of our agenda is the belief in our strength and resolve - as individuals, families, and communities. 

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