A Wellbeing Strategy that Works (with Alyssa Than-Stark, Group Wellbeing and Reward Manager at Singtel)

Building A Sustainable Wellbeing Strategy that Works (with Alyssa Than-Stark, Group Wellbeing and Reward Manager at Singtel)
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
April 26, 2023
min read

Alyssa is a passionate advocate for promoting a culture of "holistic well-being" in the workplace. Drawing on her extensive experience in behavioral health & neuropsychiatry, she discusses the importance of designing evidence-based strategies to meet the needs of Singtel's 20,000 employees at every level of the organization. Prior to joining Singtel, she spent the last 5 years working on the front line at various government hospitals in Singapore.

In this insightful conversation, Alyssa challenges the common understanding of workplace wellness practices and shares her firsthand experience in building comprehensive well-being initiatives. She also emphasizes the undeniable role of managers and on-the-ground champions in driving meaningful change.

Being skeptical of on-the-surface solutions like mental health webinar culture or quick fixes like free food and massages, Alyssa brought to the table another practical approach to creating a sustainable wellbeing program.

In this episode, Alyssa shares:

  • She is a psychologist by training and became interested in employee wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • She designs programs and initiatives for employee health and wellbeing, as well as benefits and rewards.
  • Alyssa believes in targeted approaches to employee wellbeing and identified five wellbeing pillars, including mental health, physical health, financial wellbeing, belonging and inclusion, and professional development.
  • She doesn't believe in mental health webinars or free food and massages as solutions. Her strategy is pushed out through monthly wellbeing newsletters and activities.
  • Middle management is an important focus for such a big company with over 20,000 staff.
  • Alyssa suggests that a simple way to encourage communication and listening in the workplace is to ask colleagues how they are doing.
  • She believes that there will be a focus on personalized and preventative healthcare in the future, with companies taking a more comprehensive approach to health exams and designing personalized treatments.
  • She also mentions the use of digital health platforms and AI for data analysis.
  • Alyssa emphasizes the importance of training and upskilling middle management and senior leaders on empathetic leadership skills, psychological safety, and resilience.
  • Additionally, she talks about the trend of "quiet hiring," which focuses on upskilling and providing opportunities for existing employees to explore different areas of the business. Alyssa believes that all of these trends and areas will feed into every part of the company and its needs.

I hope you'll enjoy this episode and pick up valuable ways to improve your and your team's wellbeing at work. With so many hours spent working, this is so incredibly important. You can find it on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more.

Daan van Rossum: Can you explain the role and responsibilities of a Group Rewards and Well-Being Manager? Tell us a little bit about your journey to Singtel's Wellness Champion as well.

Alyssa Than: I am a psychologist by training, not an HR professional. My specialty is brain health. I started my career in clinical work. I worked five years in different hospitals in Singapore, on the front line.

During COVID, I realized that employee wellbeing has become extremely important and pertinent for every organization. I got into the employee wellbeing space when the opportunity at Singtel came about. They wanted to hire a wellbeing specialist to design a strategy for the entire group to take care of our employees.

I design programs and initiatives for the health and wellbeing of our employees. This also encompasses lots of areas of benefits and rewards. I'm involved with medical insurance and give advice on mental health, physical health, and learning and development programs. Wellbeing is a big aspect of the corporate world now. We have our hands in everything. It's been an interesting journey so far.

Daan van Rossum: Very interesting! Not many companies move beyond the idea of wellbeing and appoint someone as a group wellbeing manager. Can you give examples of what Singtel practically does under your leadership to promote employee wellbeing?

Alyssa Than: When COVID came about, a lot of corporations were like, "Oh, we have to take care of the mental health or wellness of our employees. So, we're going to bring in loads of people to talk and do webinars."

I don't believe in a mental health webinar culture. Neither do I believe that giving your employees just free food or massages is going to take care of the crux of the matter. That's organizational culture change. 

At Singtel, we take targeted approaches to employee wellbeing. We want to target all levels of the company with leadership buy-in. We also have on-the-ground champions. At the moment, we are looking to tackle middle management too. This is important in such a big company with over 20,000 employees to take care of. We try our best to meet the needs of each level of this organization. 

One of the things I did when I first came in was identify five different well-being pillars because it's so important to look at an individual or an employee as a whole.

A lot of companies focus only on mental health, but physical health affects mental health and vice versa. Financial health affects mental health and vice versa. The pillars we chose were mental health, physical health, financial wellbeing, belonging and inclusion, and professional development. We believe that they represent the whole self instead of just addressing these aspects in silos.

How do we push out our strategy through these five pillars? Every month, we celebrate a different pillar through our monthly wellbeing newsletters and activities we organize for employees. That has definitely garnered lots of popularity. Also because, at the end of the day, work is still work. We're really busy day-to-day, and newsletters or communications are something that people can tap into easily. That's a great way to communicate with employees on a wider level.

Something that I'm very proud of that we do is make sure that our employees are taken care of anytime, anywhere, and globally, 24x7. You might be thinking, as a listener, "Oh, she's going to talk about employee assistance programs." And, "Oh, not a lot of people use that."

That's true! But something that we have also engaged in is that we have a big and amazing partnership with Intellect. Intellect is Southeast Asia's fastest growing mental health startup. Their goal, along with ours, is to make mental wellbeing more relatable and accessible for our employees. Intellect offers a holistic solution in the form of an app.

That brings together tech, which we're very big on at SingTel, and specialist support from this group of amazing people. They call them behavioral health coaches. Our employees can access wellbeing support, learning journeys, rescue sessions, journaling, and all these amazing and fun features on the app, which they can bring with them anywhere in the world on their phone. That is something that I fully support because it's also helpful for our employees to build their own self-awareness.

Self-will, self-awareness, and realizing that your wellbeing is important are super significant. Compared to sitting in a group with people trying to shove a wellness solution down your throat, there are a couple ways that we do it at SingTel. It's been really, really cool.

Daan van Rossum: Super interesting! I love the idea of the five pillars. Mental wellbeing is something that was pretty taboo before. Now, people can discuss physical wellbeing, financial wellbeing, belonging, and professional developments. They all interact with each other, don't they?

Alyssa Than: Yes, they do. That's why we have a well-being strategy that is as holistic as possible. In the future, if one pillar is more important than the other, then we will gear our framework towards meeting that need because every year, some employees will focus on one pillar more than the other, depending on their age and their needs.

We like to help them out in any way that we can through these pillars that form the basis of taking care of them.

Daan van Rossum: Even though you're spending so much time and effort on all of that, and there must be enough people in the organization that really appreciate all of that, there are still challenges that we often run into, especially when it comes to delivering wellbeing programs. 

What are some of the challenges that you've come across as you've started building that strategy and executing it over the last year?

Alyssa Than: I think the biggest issue that not just our organization but also employees and individuals face with their personal, team, and organizational wellbeing.

We live in a fast-paced world where things move at light speed and individual and team wellbeing is always put on the backburner because it's not as big of a priority as raking in the top dollar or hitting KPIs.

We've seen in our own organization that it will soon start to build a vicious cycle of burnout toxicity that will eventually affect collective organizational wellbeing. So, many wellbeing leaders out there are still trying to answer that question, along with myself. I don't have a straightforward answer. I'm still trying to figure it out in my strategy building.

It comes with a change in mindset and behavior and, ultimately, a change in company culture. Our aim is for our employees to know in their hearts, minds, and bodies that health and wellbeing should always be number one on their list and to not compromise anything for that.

But this is something that I grapple with because I love being efficient, on time, and on schedule. These things take time. Organizational culture, especially one like SingTel, which has been around for years, even before I was born, is going to take time to change. 

We have introduced the idea of building through small goals and small steps. Even if it's just setting an alarm every half an hour to get up and stretch from your work desk versus, "Oh, I'm going to run a marathon by the end of the year," That's still something small that is going to contribute to your own wellbeing and, ultimately, organizational wellbeing as well. 

Daan van Rossum: Absolutely! The small steps speak to the fact that you're really looking at it from a very sustainable perspective rather than the webinar culture, where maybe it's a bit flashy to be able to announce all of these events and activities, but what are those small things people actually can do, and how can you slowly build that behavior?

Alyssa, you also mentioned the busyness. And I think that, especially in the past year, we've all started working almost more than ever before.

Microsoft shared data last year. They looked at productivity patterns and analyzed how much time people were spending on messaging apps and email. It showed that the workday is getting longer. We're spending more time working, maybe before and after the typical workday. Even on weekends, we're spending more time in meetings and communicating because the boundaries are blurring. Home and life are becoming one and the same. Sometimes you just have to escape home to be in an office to actually do some work, but sometimes you also need to escape the office to find a space to focus on what you need to do.

In terms of creating that culture of wellbeing and then the topic of productivity, are those fighting with each other or can they live side by side? What's the point of view currently for you and Singtel?

Alyssa Than: As I mentioned, a lot of people, especially in Asia, find it very hard to draw healthy boundaries at work. I think it's because we're very responsible and proud of our work and what we do. But that again eats into the whole vicious cycle of burnout. It's funny because, in the long term, that is going to eat at your productivity.

When you asked the question, three words jumped out at me, which a lot of people did use and like to perhaps complain about: "I don't get enough work-life balance." And I think everyone needs to recognize that, in an organization and also personally at home, what kind of balance is going to look so different for every individual?

For yourself and for me, because we enjoy different things, and then I pose the question to other people as well, "Okay, what is work-life balance?" What does that mean? In general, it is viewed as allowing employees to have adequate time to spend outside of work on things like family, community, friends, and obviously hobbies as well.

I think something that can help with the balance between wellbeing and productivity is a framework. That is designed to encourage a balanced approach between work and personal lives. We can call this work-life integration, because again, as you said, the lines between home and work have blurred so much over the last couple of years.

There are a couple of ways we do it in Singtel. Interestingly, even before I joined Singtel, they'd already introduced telecommuting, but we really rebranded it and brought it home during COVID into something called our blended ways of working. I think most companies have this now: You work in the office a couple days, and you work from home a couple of days.

It's not just about having a hybrid way of working for our employees. That's something that's become quite the norm across the world, but it's about flexibility. So the flexibility to get that work out in or send the kids to school instead of commuting to work and having that extra hour to yourself, and the flexibility in your wallet to cook at home instead of spending money at a cafe at work.

These are really important considerations that future potential hires and existing employees will take into account when looking at the organization and thinking, "Okay, these are ways that are actually going to boost my productivity because I go for a run in the morning that makes me feel good. I sit down, and having already felt great, having had my own time, my freedom, and my choice to exercise, I'm now ready to face the day and face my work."

Balance for many of us between work and home life is also how the organization can be part of your support system. When you hit a milestone birthday, get married, or add new members to the family, we have this thing called flexi family leave. We have five days of extra leave for birthdays, marriages, and other important events.

You can take those times so that you don't miss those important moments. The other plus is that it gives you peace of mind because you've had an experience with those moments, and you can peacefully go back to work the next day and be like, "Oh, I can now really focus on the task at hand."

It's a tricky one. I myself am guilty of not being able to draw healthy boundaries. Again, it takes time. You have to genuinely believe that you and your needs and health are important and also find a way to set expectations for you and your organization. Everyone has a different threshold, and I really urge and challenge you, as listeners, to think about how you can optimize that.

Daan van Rossum: The headline “Working 9 to 2, and Again After Dinner” made quite a news. Now everyone is getting used to finding a way to be productive and have that time to get the benefits of truly flexible work, where it's not just like you're either in the office or at home, but can you work from 9 to 2 and then spend time with your family and then go back to work after dinner?

To your point, Alyssa, it comes down to whether I truly feel I have permission to do that. It's one thing to say that we embrace flexibility, but if you then feel awkward about not being online for an hour or if you've even experienced people reprimanding you or talking to you about a moment where you didn't reply quickly enough, then that still doesn't really work.

So in your practice how do you make sure that the philosophy and the culture that you're trying to build where people feel you are supporting them in the wellbeing and you care about their wellbeing in a really big organization, that means you need to build a lot of allies in the organization, throughout the company, and in your practice.

How do you go about getting managers on board with this and making this other philosophy a reality?

Alyssa Than: I'm always thinking about where we're designing our annual strategy and where the wellbeing team meets up to think about themes for the next month. I'm always thinking about the end goal, which is to evolve company culture so that we can prioritize our wellbeing and, of course, better ourselves and the community.

What kind of behavioral patterns do I want to see, experience, and emulate, or for my managers and my leaders to emulate in our day-to-day at Singtel? Because it is a reality that people are worried about their bosses. People are worried about, "Oh, if I'm all online, I'm again in so much trouble." So I think the first thing is to establish a culture of listening and open communication.

It is so important to walk the talk. Encourage employees to be open to communicating your needs because, yes, your managers are your bosses, but they have KPIs to meet too. They're in charge of teams. If you are able to sit down with your managers and voice out, "Hey, I'm having difficulty with A." or "Hey, I need time off on B", I guess it's funny how the first thing in our minds is a book jump to the most negative worst scenario to protect ourselves as a defense mechanism.

You'll think, "Oh, my boss is definitely going to say no. And just for asking, they are going to make me feel so guilty." But you never know until you ask. And if it's a legitimate reason, then they have no reason to say "no."

Similarly, the more you are able to build a relationship with your boss that is open, trusting, and one of communication, the more it will make both sides of the party feel heard. Something that I really encourage in the office to do. If you really don't know where to start with communication and listening, just ask, "How are you?" It's the three simplest words to ask anyone.

It's the simplest three words to make your colleague or your boss feel heard, and it gives them an outlet to tell you anything they like about themselves or their day and you can start there. It's not hard to ask each other how they are.

Daan van Rossum: It is hard to break down those barriers. Especially in Asia, we have a very clear hierarchy in our heads, and we don't want to step over the boundaries that we have between each other, especially between levels. Asking that question and saying those words can be pretty tough, but I think they also speak to the idea of more empathy towards each other.

I think the kindness and empathy muscles need to be trained. Especially when people are on their own, it's very easy to start to become a bit skeptical. Are people really working? Are they really contributing? Are they really productive?

Being clear about what's required but also assuming the best and trusting by default, and then maybe every now and then asking each other how we really are beyond the work, may help a lot. I think those are really good tips that will definitely be helpful as we navigate this totally new way of working.

Towards the end of the conversation, it might be interesting to hear from you, as you're one of the few people who, at this scale, are thinking about and doing wellbeing. Where do you think the trends are? What are the things we're going to see in the future when it comes to wellbeing at work?

Alyssa Than: I have been reading quite a lot. Specifically, I see a lot more companies taking on a very personalized approach to wellbeing. Instead of just doing a general blanket health screening for everyone, they're doing more comprehensive physical health exams alongside taking into account a lot more specific information, perhaps biomarkers as well as behavioral health, to understand employees unique risk factors. Then, further on, design or work together with health providers to churn out personalized treatment or interventions.

Besides personalization, there's going to be a lot more focus on preventative health. 

The silver lining is that it's definitely made a lot of people more aware of their health status and about how important it is to not just keep healthy but to celebrate sustainable health. I think there's going to be a lot of focus on nutrition in the long term. For example, a lot of people are very interested in lung health because of COVID. 

Also, I think we'll see a lot of companies take on perhaps more digital health platforms, perhaps even featuring a lot of AI that can analyze data quickly. And also on our end, help us churn through data to see how we can improve our programs and initiatives. That's on the health and wellbeing side of things.

There is going to be quite a lot of focus on training and upskilling middle management. That's something that we're taking on this year. Not just middle management; we're doing that with our senior leaders as well. Equipping and training them on empathetic leadership skills, psychological safety skills, and personal and organizational resilience. How do we build that as leaders and managers? Because, especially if you work in a big organization, you definitely need to have representatives, advocates, and champions on the ground.

Especially for us, as we have so many business units, I can have my eyes on all of them, and I would love for our manager to walk the talk. Last year, we heard a lot about "quiet quitting." Interestingly, I've been hearing a lot more about "quiet hiring." It is something that we are also looking at, and that's a focus on internal talent. 

Upskilling our internal talent, ensuring that there are opportunities for existing employees to explore different areas of the business that they want to look at that they might have been thinking about before but maybe were not sure about, whilst, of course, meeting the ever-evolving needs of our organization.

There is going to be quite a bit of internal mobility with this "quiet hiring" trend. I'm very much focused on the personalized and preventative wellbeing aspect of our company this year, as well as leadership buy-in, because I think all of these trends and areas are going to feed into every part of the company and its needs. We definitely need to strengthen our focus.

Daan van Rossum: Absolutely! Nothing is as personal as wellbeing. It makes a lot of sense to not take a one-size-fits-all approach but to look into how we can customize and personalize that and give people some autonomy in how they want to experience those wellbeing initiatives. That's really interesting.

At the end of the day, companies are nothing but a group of people—in your case, a really big group of people.

Taking great care of those people will ultimately help in attracting and retaining great talent, especially towards your point about "quite hiring." If you can upskill and help them, maybe place them in new roles within the organization and therefore keep them longer.

Really interesting! Very helpful! People can definitely take away a lot of practical tips in terms of how they can go about designing and executing a program. Your point about the need for those champions on the ground and the need for middle management to play a big role and therefore understand the importance of wellbeing in the workplace will be very key.

I cannot imagine that there is anyone listening who doesn't want to now look you up, follow you, and see what else you talk about.

Alyssa Than: Thank you everyone for tuning in.

Daan van Rossum: You can find Alyssa Than-Stark on LinkedIn and Facebook.Welcome to the second episode of the Future Work podcast with your host, Daan van Rossum. Today's guest is Alyssa Than-Stark, Group Wellbeing and Reward Manager at Singtel. 

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.