Communication, mental health, and the workplace.


Joker sheds light on the importance of communication, mental health and the workplace.

Joker – a spin-off about the antagonist from the famous blockbuster DC Comics sequel, Batman – has created a theatrical buzz all around town. Award-winning actor, Joaquin Phoenix, skillfully portrays the erratic behavior of Arthur Fleck, also known as the Joker, suffers from severe and multiple mental illnesses. The film depicts how Arthur’s mental illnesses spiral out of control as the system fails him and, believing no one is listening to him, no one cares. In the movie, his neurological disorder does not play well in public, which causes people to avert their eyes and label him as a “weirdo” or a “freak.”

While some of Arthur’s horrific fictional characteristics may be over-glorified, this part of his story draws parallels to those who suffer silently from mental disorders, being shunned by society, similarly to what Arthur endures. Why? Because mental illness still carries a huge negative stigma and is considered a taboo topic including in the workplace. The truth is, a total of 4.2 million Malaysians suffers from mental health problems as reported by the Malaysian National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2015 and it has taken a toll on our economic national output. That said, communication surrounding mental health issues is crucial in improving the mental health standards of companies which will consequently improve productivity.

How much of an effect does mental health play in the workplace?

Mental health plays an important role in the productivity of a business as it impacts the psychological, social, and economic background of the company. According to the AIA Vitality Survey 2018, there is an increasing prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace with 50.2% of employees having reported at least one dimension of work-related stress.

It not only creates serious consequences to the well-being of an individual worker, but also impacts the productivity and growth of the enterprise. Based on the AIA Vitality Survey 2018, mental health problems in Malaysia cause ill-health related absence and presenteeism, which results in an average loss of 73.1 days of working hour per employee. This shows an increment from an average of 67.2 days in 2017, which translates into an estimated cost of RM2.27 million lost per organisation per year.[1]

“Who here in this room suffers from mental health? Please, raise your hand.”

Despite this whopping number, as a society, we still avoid talking about mental health issues at work. When given the platform to raise your hand in admittance of dealing with mental health problems, the likelihood of someone doing so is very low. 

Instead, many of us choose to deal with our emotions and thoughts at work in solitude, concealing it away from society by hiding in the bathroom when we’re upset, or forcing a fake smile in front of our colleagues. Unfortunately, disorders such as depression and anxiety often go undetected for years as it is harder to notice as compared to physical illnesses. Nobody else sees the sleepless nights or the anxiety attacks that you get. We’re hesitant when it comes to asking for what we need to recover – a day off, or a work-from-home day – because of the negative stigma that revolves around the subject matter. Hence, many workers who suffer from mental health illnesses go about their day without treatment or support.

Mental health issues have long been negatively stigmatised and seen as taboo by the public. While there are now more open discussions about the matter amongst the public, it is still a heavily misunderstood topic. It is still seen as a weakness instead of a challenge. The issue gets heard and then, brushed off as an episode, completely neglecting the underlying issue. Avoidance from confronting and having constructive discussions surrounding the issue does not cause it to disappear. 

So, how does communication play a role in the issue?

The truth is, mental health and physical health are directly linked – while physical illnesses are much easier to talk about in the workplace, many companies today are starting to realise that turning a blind eye or sweeping the issues surrounding the mental health of their employees under the rug isn’t the way to go.  Today, a lot more efforts are put in to promote mental healthcare in the office. Where conversations were once nuanced, there appears to be greater accessibility or avenues for those seeking counselling at their respective workplace.

Here are some tips or approach on how to avert the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues:

  1. Conversation culture

    It’s time we stop shutting down the concerns of our employees when they approach us with concerns over their emotional or mental stability and stop labeling mentally ill persons as “orang gila” or deranged. This will only perpetuate the culture of silence.

    Understanding and addressing the root causes are the first steps to solving the underlying issues and improving productivity. Hence, it is important to develop well-being strategies that nurture a culture of transparency to help support employees dealing with mental health as well as create a culture where employees feel safe to be open about their well-being. Having honest and open conversations to care for one another builds trust between your business and staff, boosts morale, and improves productivity.

  2. Education and awareness

    While there may be many of us who do care, want to listen, and give advice whenever someone talks about their mental disorders, the major problem is that most of us don’t know how to react and respond.

    This is where importance in education and awareness plays a role in the company. Businesses should invest in workshops and trainings that aim to educate their clients, managers, and employees as a general practice to having healthy conversations on mental health. From the managerial side, this includes teaching general skills relevant for all types of people with mental illness, such as asking open-ended questions and eliciting their perspective, handling denial, and supporting them in the most positive and effective way.

    Having a company-wide Mental Health Awareness campaign focusing on empowering employees to take charge of the campaign and their mental health is also a great way to build awareness about mental illness, removing stigmas, providing employees with resources to support mental health needs, and creating a platform for employees to speak up about the issue.

  3. Open line of communication between manager and employee

    This goes back to the point of moving from the “just sweep it under the rug” mentality to keeping the conversation grounded into the practical everyday basis between managers and employees. It’s about bringing together what you’ve read and learned from workshops and applying it to your real workplace. An open line of communication in the relationship with your direct manager can be a great support in the workplace because they ultimately are the final decision-maker in deciding who gets promoted or a raise, so their judgements will affect you. An effective open line of communication with your manager will allow for you to work through problems with your manager and come up with solutions that can help you subside your symptoms.

Some companies in Malaysia, such as PWC and Sime Darby are great examples of employees who are pioneering mental health initiatives. PWC introduced #PWCWellbeing in 2015 to encourage a healthy body, mind, and heart by organising mindfulness classes, educational workshops, and providing a private and confidential counselling hotline to their employees. At Sime Darby, their Great Minds Campaign that was recently launched this year focuses on raising awareness on mental health issues and engaging stakeholders through workshops, forums, partnership engagements, and awareness programs.

No workplace is immune to mental health issues. After all, mental health is a basic human right, which is why we need to start taking matters into our own hands and solve the underlying problems together as it could be a great cost to the psychological, economic, and social terms of our country if not properly addressed just as how the situation in Joker deteriorated. The discourse on mental health must be a continuous one so that it becomes more understood and less stigmatised.


With the rate of mental health illnesses due to stress on the rise today, organisations need to play a more effective role in supporting their employees as the well-being of organisations depend on the well-being of its staff. It can be challenging to start conversations on mental health as the topic has been taboo for so long. As a creative consulting agency, let us come up with communication strategies and ideate activities for your company to start implementing within the organisation.


Photo credits: Nik Shuliahin and Antenna on Unsplash