The World of EAP
Singapore Focuses on Employee Well-being
By John Maynard, Ph.D., CEAP
In November 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Singapore and talk to a number of EA professionals there. This was my third visit since 2003, and much has changed in both the EA field and the country of Singapore. Like the nation itself, EAP in Singapore is a mix of multinational headquarters serving countries throughout Asia and government-supported EAP services.
Diverse, Ambitious, Growing
Singapore is the world’s only island city-state, and its 5.6 million residents include the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, with more than one out of every six households having at least a million US dollars in disposable wealth. At the same time, the inequality of income among its residents is also one of the greatest among developed countries.
Most Singaporeans are bilingual, with English as the common language. The population is made up primarily of people with Chinese, Malay, and Indian ethnicities. According to the Pew Research Center, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse nation, with about one-third of the population practicing Buddhism, 19% Christianity, 15% Islam, 11% Taoism or folk religion, 5% Hinduism, and 18% no religion.
Singapore’s multiparty parliamentary government is a very strong, if not authoritarian, force. Its emphasis on political and social stability, meritocracy, and rapid economic growth has led to the World Bank ranking Singapore as the easiest place to do business for the last decade. At the same time, Singapore is consistently considered among the least corrupt countries in the world and is highly rated in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety, and housing.
More than 7,000 multinational companies from the United States, Europe, and Japan have a presence in Singapore, as do more than 1,500 companies each from China and India. With this level of multinational business activity in Singapore, it’s not surprising that the country also serves as a multinational hub for EA services throughout Asia.
Introduction of EAP
Psychologist and long-time EAPA member Dr. Elizabeth Nair recalls first hearing about and introducing the EAP concept to her students in the late 1990s, when she was teaching Industrial & Organizational Psychology at the National University of Singapore. At roughly the same time, several multinational corporations began to explore how to expand EA services for their employees into Singapore and other Asian countries.
In 2001, the Singapore government’s Ministry of Health established a “Health Promotion Board” to act as the national driver for health promotion and disease prevention programs in Singapore. With the support of the Health Promotion Board (HPB), a group of multinationals, including DuPont, Kimberly-Clark, Unocal, Motorola, Chevron, Dow, P&G, and JP Morgan Chase, formed the Asia-Pacific Employee Assistance Roundtable (APEAR). They held their first conference in 2003, and I was privileged to attend as a consultant.
Several external EA vendors from Asia, including the Centre for Effective Living based in Singapore, also attended the initial APEAR conference. Still headquartered in Singapore, APEAR has continued to hold annual conferences in countries throughout the Asia Pacific region since that time. The next conference is scheduled for May 2017 in Manila, Philippines.
Government Grants Support EAP
One of HPB’s initiatives is the Workplace Health Promotion Program, established to help Singapore workers achieve their full potential, in part by promoting positive mental health among workers. The program’s working definition of positive mental health (taken from the World Health Organization) is, “the state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her abilities, is able to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productivity, and make a contribution to his or her community.”
The HPB is currently piloting a new Workplace Health Package grant program for small and medium Enterprises (SMEs) through which Singaporean companies with 5-200 employees can receive grants of up to $15,000 to establish health promotion programs covering mental well-being, nutrition, exercise, and chronic disease management. Surveys indicated that one in four workplaces offered a mental well-being program in 2010, and with the support of the SME Workplace Health Package grants, this proportion is likely much higher today.
While the government’s long-term active support certainly has helped the local Singapore EAP market grow substantially, the emphasis on mental well-being as just one component of health promotion also has created challenges. As in other countries, the stigma often associated with emotional issues compared to other aspects of health promotion, such as nutrition and exercise, sometimes means that the “EA” part of services loses the visibility it might have in a more free-standing EAP.
The embedded nature of EA services within the government programs also makes it more difficult to promote and deliver the management consultation components of EAP core technology. As a result, EAP still struggles for acceptance as a distinct, professional discipline that offers significant benefits for both employees and employers.
A related challenge is the cultural emphasis, common in today’s Asia, on competition. At the individual and family level, this begins at an early age, with children and their parents vying for the best grades in school, which in turn leads to acceptance at the best schools, and eventually to attaining the best jobs. In the business world, competitive intensity shows up in an emphasis on measuring and obtaining the highest possible return from any investment in materials, infrastructure, or wages and benefits. With EA services rolled into a broader health promotion context, quantifying the ROI of the “EAP” package becomes more difficult than ever.
Despite these challenges, EAP in Singapore continues to grow both at the local level and as the multinational hub for services throughout Asia Pacific. In a multicultural world, EA services continue to demonstrate their ability to adapt and provide value in diverse settings.
Let’s Continue the Discussion
My thanks to the following people for taking the time to meet with me as I was preparing this column: Dr. Elizabeth Nair, principal psychologist for Work & Health Psychologists; Mr. Gary Barnes, director, Asia Pacific, for AXA ICAS International; Ms. Wynne Wee, regional director, Asia Pacific, for Workplace Options; and Mr. Keng Mun Yam, counseling psychologist, formerly with the Centre for Effective Living.
Let’s continue the discussion of EAP in Singapore and elsewhere around the world! You’re welcome to contact me directly any time or post your feedback, questions, or suggestions on EAPA’s LinkedIn group.
Dr. John Maynard served as CEO of EAPA from 2004 through 2015. Prior to that, he was President of SPIRE Health Consultants, Inc., a global consulting firm specializing in EA strategic planning, program design, and quality improvement. In both roles, he had the opportunity to observe, meet, and exchange ideas with EA professionals in countries around the world. He currently accepts speaking engagements and consulting projects where he can make a positive difference. He can be reached at email@example.com.