TBWA\ Singapore’s Ara Hampartsoumian: why we’re invested in mindfulness

In our current new predicament, I’m asked a lot of questions.

How is business faring? How will you sustain yourselves? How will Singapore’s largest creative agency stand the test of COVID-19? All good, but ‘crystal ball’ type questions with the uncharted waters this Pirate Collective is sailing.

But it is rare for anyone to ask what our agency is doing for the mental well-being of our people.

Which comes as no surprise.

Mental health and well-being have rarely rated highly on the priority list for our industry with some gradual interest only in recent years. We are a business that is highly demanding, requires a very quick turnaround, and problem-solving for our clients. All skills that need razor-sharp focus, dexterity and aptitude. Admittedly, that’s part of the reason most of us are in this business.

As someone who has worked in this industry for over 30 years, sustaining this rigorous pace eventually takes its toll.

And it’s not just our industry that is feeling the sting, especially as the world is facing a crisis.

The rise of mental health issues due to the pressures and uncertainty around COVID-19 pandemic is a very real rising threat. All around us, local and global news from the Singapore Straits Times to the Financial Times are grim daily reminders of the stark reality of what these mental health repercussions are having on us. And that’s just what’s being reported.

As Singapore goes into further stay and work from home restrictions, and the novelty of working from home, teleconferencing and socializing online wears off, what will people turn to help them through their restlessness?

I’m no expert but as a recent student of the practice of mindfulness, I know it has been the best investment I have made for myself and the agency in 2020.

Before the onset of COVID-19, TBWA\Singapore was running a weekly mindfulness class. The leadership team started sessions in November last year and we then opened the class agency-wide this February.

Together with our director of talent, Mandy Goh, we found a course that was designed to guide our people to achieve personal as well as professional mental wellbeing.

Our end goal was for our people to achieve a higher level of focus; provide them with a sense of comfort that they're not alone; while giving them space to take those well-needed breaks in an otherwise hectic day. The course also offers daily exercises we can take away to improve our practice. The mind, like many muscles, also needs training and practice to build resilience and strength to get us through our daily lives.

We engaged the superb mindfulness coach Cheen Tan of nowyourmind. Himself previously from the corporate world, Cheen offered a class based on the science of training your body and mind to be in a ‘rest and digest’ mode instead of our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ mode that triggers under stress.

The rest and digest mode activates our immune system to heal, while prolonged fight or flight mode strains our bodies and minds.

That’s simply put, but the effects are real.

Since our 'new normal' sees us working from home, the agency continues the sessions virtually. With a whole new set of demands and challenges placed on our people, the need to continue these classes was more important than ever.

Now in week four and week seven for some of us, (TBWA has been in split office #WFH since the end Feb) a silver lining to #WFH is these sessions are open to the whole agency in Singapore as well as colleagues across Asia; most recently joining us from Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Although we are apart, we are together. Its’ been a wonderful way to see the faces of colleagues and feel engaged in a unique (and quiet) way - during a time of strange isolation. (Plus it’s not every day I close my eyes and stay quiet in front of a group of colleagues over Webex.)

While these are strange times, I love how we’re adapting and disrupting norms in creative ways.

Our investment in mindfulness from the onset has been primarily for the individual's self - preservation and wellbeing.

But I’m very frank when I say I hope the investment indirectly affects people’s professional success.

When people are present, focused and fully engaged they absorb information better, make meetings more efficient and are able to find a balance between work and personal life, leading to happier people.

From a personal level, I find the sessions have allowed me to focus, self-reflect, prioritize tasks and offer a sense of calm amidst so many challenges.

I truly do hope our people adopt mindfulness beyond our current situation. It is a practice that applies to all things in our life beyond just work. It’s a long-term investment in our most important assets, our people.

Ara Hampartsoumian is CEO of TBWA\ Group Singapore.

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