Article by Gordon Watson, Chief Executive Officer, AXA Asia & Chair, Shared Value Project Hong Kong

As we mark World Mental Health Day, now is the time for companies in Asia to reassess how they address the issue of mental health in the workplace. A topic long considered taboo in many countries, the fog is finally starting to lift as attitudes shift and awareness improves. Employers like AXA have an important role to play in being a force for positive change, not only to support their staff but also to enhance their business performance.

Research by the World Economic Forum estimates that the global cost of mental illness reached nearly US$2.5 trillion in 2010, which is projected to increase to over US$6 trillion by 2030. Being based in Hong Kong, a relentlessly fast-paced city where the boundaries between work and home life often blur, I have seen up-close the impact of this issue. Studies have revealed that 25% of working people in Hong Kong show levels of depression and anxiety, 2.5 times the global average. Hong Kong people work the most work hours per week globally, at more than 50 hours on average, and the city has the highest percentage of employees with at least one aspect of work-related stress (64%). This has contributed to mental health becoming a leading cause of death in Hong Kong, with suicide rates above the Asia average.

The cost for households, companies and the wider economy is undeniable. Poor mental health conditions can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (when people are physically present but not working) and general productivity loss. Yet while companies feel the impact, many fail to give the issue the attention it deserves.

AXA has made progress in this area. For staff, we have implemented inclusive workplace policies, encouraging a culture where staff can bring their whole selves to work and they are supported through flexible work arrangements. For customers, AXA is moving from being a payer to a true health partner, working to enable better access to mental health and well-being support through health services and health insurance as well as increasing access to innovative technology. This includes our recent partnership with Oxford VR to use a modern VR technology platform to manage common mental health issues. However, more can always be done.

This is why, under the banner of the Shared Value Project Hong Kong and alongside other leading companies in the city, AXA is today formally pledging to take further concrete action to break down barriers in the workplace. With one in eight people in Hong Kong polled saying that they feel unable to discuss their mental well-being with anyone because of the social stigma that comes from seeking professional help, we want to ensure that staff feel supported and can get the help they need.

This pledge is led by Shared Value Project Hong Kong, a non-profit organization now celebrating its second anniversary that is making mental health its latest priority. The group is rooted in the idea of Creating Shared Value as defined by M. Porter & M. Kramer in their influential Harvard Business Review article, meaning a business strategy can create competitive advantage by aligning profit and purpose. By helping to solve social problems, businesses can foster trust with the communities in which they operate in and at the same time, unlock opportunities for future growth.

This can seem daunting for employers, but the first step need not be the hardest. Initial action can be as simple as raising awareness among staff of where to get help, inside and outside of work; putting in place policies that ensure a mental well-being-friendly environment; and promoting activities that benefit employees’ mental well-being alongside other wellness activities such as physical exercise.

A more structured approach means considering the risk factors involved in workplace stress and mapping out approaches on how to address them. Research indicates key issues include workload, time pressures, work-life balance, relations with managers, and relations with colleagues/teams. Initiatives can include company policy creation, training resources, internal communication, and even facilitating access to treatment. No matter the approach, a commitment by senior leadership is also a necessity to set the tone from the top down.

As a starting point, making a firm commitment to improve and being vocal on the issue means companies can actively fight stigma by demonstrating that mental health is not a taboo to be handled alone. This brings both tangible and intangible benefits for businesses.

Firstly, the drain on productivity and performance that arises from letting these issues go unnoticed can start to be tackled. Research in the US has found that treatment of depression results in a 40-60% reduction in absenteeism and/or presenteeism, meaning that by proactively addressing depression in the workplace, employers can reduce costs and, even more importantly, support a healthier employee base.

Secondly, research shows that developing a more supportive, inclusive workplace where stigma is addressed has a knock-on impact. Such efforts can lead to improved employee knowledge and supportive behavior towards people with mental illness. Ultimately, this can boost employee morale and even reinforce a company’s image as a compassionate, responsible employer. In a marketplace where employees are attracted as much by what a company stands for as the compensation package, this can be a powerful opportunity.

As a responsible business, providing the best supportive environment for one’s talent makes commercial sense to reduce previously unquantified costs, reduce attrition and attract new recruits. Companies can no longer afford to leave the issue of mental health out of sight and out of mind.


  1. Great article,
    Commendable initiative to align business strategy, and society upliftment – both financially & emotionally.
    Some quick thoughts to add as well, key factors which would define the popularity of this initiative, and thereby, disrupting the global business strategy; would be time to meet the objective, approach and measures in place for yet another ‘black swan’.

    As mature companies tend to have policies defined for employee’s covering the mental well being, more focused can be given for its implementation or enforcement, primarily starting from mid-senior level of matrix heirarchy. Underlying principle shall include promoting the ‘change, learn or/and adopt’ mindset which becomes the foundation, through which company can attain higher emotional intelligence among employees -> recoverring the productivity loss and eventually higher revenue generation.

    In terms of time – although economic loss of mentall illness would be doubled in next couple of decades, but the initiative needs implementation in a very short period for the desired outcome, unless company analysis disregards any potential black swan event in next decade or so. Achieving the state of utopia should be achieved within next 5 years. Event such as black swan has unforeseen consequences which could demand changing the business strategy hence proper measuress shall be put on place.

    Approach could be simple yet very effective if tapped on the right place. Most preferrably at the mid-senior level such that it propagates naturraly in both direction of matrix org structure i.e. junior <> senior


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