Protecting The Mental Health Of Employees In Asia

Op-Ed Commentary by Chris Devonshire-Ellis – October 11th, 2021

Winter 2021/22 May Present Difficulties – Your Staff Need Extra Attention, Protection and Security.

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

Looking after staff should always be at the top of any senior executives list of responsibilities, although the ability to manage this differs from personality to personality. There are solid business reasons, as well as interconnected moral reasons for doing so; I will explain in this article the benefits of contributing to a positive employee culture within your business.

I will also touch on some of the unique difficulties posed on employee relations during the on-going Covid pandemic, as employers must now face the spectre of a third winter being increasingly impacted by covid and the additional stresses it brings.

A Business? Or A Company? 
It may seem an odd division to make, but do you run your company as a business, or your business as a company? It may be prudent to give this some thought. The word ‘company’ can be defined in different ways but is typically exemplified by meaning a group of people all working towards a common goal. That is the key factor here – having all employees on the same page and working together. Humans being humans of course throw up all permutations – no-one is perfect, and some individuals may not be especially outgoing or necessarily team players, in which case they should already have been assigned to specific duties. But that doesn’t mean they should not be part of your company

From Company To Family 
Some businesses promote themselves as ‘family businesses’ and indeed may well be so with relations all hired and in place. But it is also important to develop quasi ‘family’ ties with your company. This is especially true in Asia where a person’s family is equated with unbreakable ties, security, and reunion. Getting a family environment into your company provides more secure feelings of belonging, of being part of something, of security and protection. There are ways to develop this, but first let’s explore the practical business reasons as to why.

If employees feel secure, they are less likely to leave their job for a small increase elsewhere. In emerging Asia, including China, employees can be prepared to change their employer for as little as the difference between the equivalent of US$100 a month. They will definitely do that if their new employer offers them greater security. So, what does that mean?

Monthly income is a major driver, as is correct adherence to all the various social insurance payments an employer is supposed to make. If you shortcut or shortchange staff on their social security, you obviously make them feel less secure. Pay salaries and all related contributions on time – and sometimes, when certain national festivals fall near the month end, a little ahead of time too. It makes your staff feel secure and appreciated.

Salary Problems
I know full well that for smaller businesses, and especially at this time, cash flow can become problematic. Maybe you need to delay salaries or spread them out across the month rather than have them all fall on the same day. I have had to manage this experience in the past. The best way to handle this is not to be grumpy and try and avoid the issue. Your employees all have their own cash flow needs. They need to know when they can pay their rent, their mortgage, bank loan, money to parents, school fees and so on. To do that, you need to level with them and to discuss collectively as a group – a company, a family, what the problems are, and how they can all help the company by making a small sacrifice by agreeing to have their wages deferred a little. It takes honesty and shows responsibility to your employees meaning they are far more collectively likely to agree. Everyone knows there is a global pandemic. You are more likely to find that your own staff will help you stretch your cash flow than not.

At Dezan Shira & Associates, because of our profession (largely tax/accounting based) some 75% of our staff are women. In Asia, many young ladies are family encouraged to have babies relatively young. Female staff who get married can often be expected to be pregnant within a year. Although maternity leave is significant, and can create some work-flow problems, this can be managed. Our experience has also shown that stay-at-home expectant Mums get bored, they miss their colleagues and even clients, especially if you have fostered a family feeling in the workplace. Most, (but not all) expectant Mums are quite happy to continue to work from home, so give them the option. Keeping them in contact with your staff (especially the other ladies) also helps – everyone in the office is thrilled when a colleague gives birth. Maternity leave can often be seen as an annoyance by bosses trying to manage workflows. It is in fact a joyous occasion I always mark with the glib comment “Another new valued staff member to join our company in 2046” which never mind how many times I’ve said it always raises a cheer. Family.

Medical Expenses
During normal operations, these are met by social insurance and employees can claim. However, there can be occasions where a medical situation can be severe. It can also be a matter of life and death and be outside the remit of the actual business responsibility. But this is a company, a family environment we are trying to foster, and that means going the extra mile – even if not legally obliged to do so. I’ll give an example: a few years ago, a diligent, if quiet but hard-working member of staff suddenly didn’t turn up at the office. This employee always arrived on time and often stayed a little late. Phone calls to their mobile went unanswered. Then a second day, and a third, with no response, by which time we were seriously concerned. The fourth day, we had a call from the employees Father, our employee had suffered a seizure and had been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

An operation was needed, almost immediately. It would be expensive, and recovery would be slow, at least 18 months, possibly two years before any return to our workplace. Without the operation, our employee would almost certainly die. However, there was a problem – the amount in the employee’s welfare fund was insufficient to cover the costs. The family also didn’t have enough funds. Although we as a company we were in our rights to dismiss our employee if unable to work for six months, the family asked us to keep paying the monthly salary – so we would also meet the monthly social insurance fees. That would cover the costs of treatment.

This was discussed at board level, and the decision made not to dismiss our employee. We kept paying salary and the social welfare fund expenses. Eventually, after two years, they returned to work; it was very emotional. But what also happened was that all the staff knew what we had done. We didn’t have too, but we stood by our employee in their time of need. A company, a family.

It had an impact. We had zero staff leave us for the next two years and still today, among our employees the view is that we are reliable, dependable and look after our staff. We cannot pay as much as some of our wealthier competitors, but our commitment to our employees is often valued as being worth more than that.

Staff Morale 
These covid-era days have also been difficult for employees. Now, more than ever, they need security. Many governments in Asia, including China, have been generous in assisting businesses meet certain mandatory expenses, including with social insurance costs. But there is a lot your company can do too:

Staff in Remote Locations
We’ve had staff caught away from their normal home and family for months at a time, a handful are still not back where they should be after nearly two years.
That has required additional allowances, including new clothes and other immediate personal expenses. We’ve funded Netflix and similar subscriptions as well as increased mobile phone allowances. Even more important is constant communication and ensuring they have projects to work on. Group calls, to say hi, have a chat as well as discuss work are especially important. Employees are family, and they want to be kept in the loop.

Other Staff Stresses
It is important to also realise and understand the specific situation that staff working from home are under. Are they alone? Living with a friend, or with family? Is everyone else in their own immediate circle, ok? All staff working from home should have their personal situation monitored, either by you or a delegated and trusted employee, or HR manager. Your employee’s personal life when working from home, if stressful, will impact upon their own mental health, and their ability to work. It is very important they have someone with the company they can talk too, someone empathetic who they will feel cares if there is a problem. Companies and families would reach out and help, and so should you. This is a time to be giving back, to help employees get through this difficult time. Keep your staff involved, and in contact and able to keep you up to date about how they are – wherever they may be.

Keeping Warm
It appears that energy shortages will be a feature of this winter. Staff working from home need to be prepared for potential power cuts. That means ensuring your staff have stocked up on basic supplies and have bought in portable gas canisters at home to cook on if the electricity is off. It also means basic practicalities such as ensuring your staff and their family have prepared with enough warm clothing and required medicines. Plus, a word of warning – in northern parts of Asia and China, families often burn charcoal to keep warm. This is dangerous and should not be done in unventilated rooms. Ensure your staff and their family have proper heating tools at home.

Team Building 
We’ve always done this, and in some countries out of lockdown it is easier to do than others. But getting your office staff all together for a long weekend when permissible provides extra energy and motivation. We have various offices out and about and the warmth and positivity communal activities bring provide a real workplace boost.

Our Shanghai staff on a team building trip last month. Note the “I Love DSA” (Dezan Shira & Associates) t-shirts

These are awkward times for many, and I fear that winter 2021/22 is also shaping up to be a potentially difficult time. Right now, then is a good opportunity to take stock of your employees’ welfare, personal situations, and mental health. More lockdowns and remote working are almost certainly going to be back on the agenda for many. Rather than a case of depressing “here we go again” it is a time for senior executives to look at where your colleagues are and prepare them with whatever it takes to get through this coming fourth wave. A good discussion with HR or your senior managers about structuring a Winter Mental Health plan for your company should be put in place and strategies developed. Getting your company and your family of employees through this will breed confidence in your ability to lead, protect them and give them security. That will not be forgotten – and when things do improve and business ticks up again – you’ll need all your team working together and pulling in the same direction.
In short – a company – and a family.


Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal commentary, belong solely to the contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Asia Briefing Limited or Dezan Shira & Associates.

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