This article contributed by Hery deHaan
If you think you need a break, or could benefit from some mental decompression, Malaysia’s very own Langkawi Island could be just the place for you.
When the pandemic ended, I returned to my adopted country of Malaysia to strategize my next career move. I thought of how I could put my knowledge and skills as a mental health practitioner with 20 years of experience to good use. A stroke of serendipity led me to Afzan. When we met in person for the first time, I knew that our partnership was the perfect union: I was the clinician, and she was the architect with the lived experience who is, like me, passionate about eradicating the stigma that surrounds mental health and advocating help-seeking behaviour.
I wanted to continue training to better raise awareness and educate people in mental health, but more than that, I wanted to offer a mental health retreat with a holistic approach. I remember feeling inspired from an ‘away day’ when we had protected time, shielded from the usual stresses of the workplace, to solve our work issues as a team. From this memory of feeling empowered, I want to offer people in the corporate world a weekend of resilience building and learning coping skills to navigate life’s challenges.
THE NEED TO UNPLUG AND UNWIND
We spend most of our adult lives at work. While work certainly provides us with a sense of purpose and improves our economic status, there are risk factors that are work-related which can negatively impact our mental health. Discrimination, work-home interface, unsafe working conditions, lack of support, and excessive stress are just a few examples. Poor mental health at work manifests into absenteeism, low productivity, and even presenteeism – the practice of being at your workplace for more hours than necessary, often manifesting as a result of job insecurity.
While mental health is undeniably a personal issue, companies nevertheless have a moral responsibility to care for their employees’ mental health. Research has shown that mentally healthy employees improve company culture, add value beyond their job scope, and ultimately drive business success. To that end, some of the things that an organization can do are to provide resources and services. These may take the form of mental health training, employee assistance programmes, and mental health retreats.
Retreats, away days, and team-building exercises have been around for decades. I’ve been to a few myself where we ran around with fake guns and pretended to ‘shoot’ each other, presumably to resolve some subconscious issues with our colleagues. But I’ve never learnt anything of value on my return to work. The retreat that I want to offer is that is more focused on mental health. I’ve a strong inkling that bringing employees to a tropical paradise to learn skills to nurture their mental health and build their mental resilience will ultimately yield more dividends than beach cleanups, paintballing, or building a structure from toilet rolls.
For a holistic approach, I wanted to offer an eclectic mix of activities like yoga, nature walks, and spa treatments to complement the cognitive training sessions… and what better venue to choose than one on the island of Langkawi?
A SOOTHING ISLAND GETAWAY
Perhaps I’m a bit biased. After all, set on the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, Langkawi is no stranger to me: I’ve lived there for three years. But there’s a lot to like here when it comes to a mental health retreat. Offering different properties that suit all budgets, Langkawi boasts the clichéd spectacular sunsets and lovely white sand beaches, conducive for reflection or introspection.
Langkawi is a tourist island and although developed, it is not as commercialized as Bali, of course a visually stunning place in its own right. But stepping into any hotel or resort in Bali and I’d feel as though I’m in a film set. Some places even go so far as to feel derivative or contrived. Langkawi has not gotten to this point yet. Indeed, there are some smaller places that I would describe as rustic, which lends them a certain charm all their own.
There are also properties that are known for their environmental stewardship. This philosophy aligns with many progressive companies that strive to be eco-friendly and would consider their patronage of such properties as being in alignment with their company policy.
As the main island out of an archipelago of 99, Langkawi is easily accessible by plane and ferry from mainland Malaysia and Singapore (and occasionally even some other countries), yet it feels far enough for people to think that they have truly gone away for the weekend.
For city folks who are used to the concrete jungle, arriving in Langkawi can be a revelation… as their plane makes its final approach, passengers are greeted by sandy beaches leading to majestic forested mountains and acres of green rice paddies, already inviting a sense of relaxation. And in Langkawi, ‘island time’ is a real thing! There is definitely a sense that everything slows down – not quite to a grinding halt, but slow indeed. The mind starts unwinding, whether you want it to or not.
RETREATS AND REALITIES
With businesses wanting to recoup their losses from the long pandemic years, many are still willing to broker some attractive deals, making a weekend retreat in a four-star hotel affordable for a small- to medium-sized company. From my perspective as a provider, I am able to select the best vendors on the island, and in turn, my clients are able to enjoy first-class facilities and great service in a truly relaxing island environment.
Langkawi’s relative compactness enables visitors to see the sights in a weekend, and during the evening, there are an assortment of activities on offer. The newly opened Dream Forest is an interesting night activity, and a refreshing change from the restaurants and bars in the main tourist area of the island.
I have travelled the length and breadth of Malaysia and I can say that the people from the state of Kedah are some of the friendliest and nicest people I’ve ever met here and these would include Langkawians. Women often have legitimate concerns when travelling, especially when alone. I do not want to make any false claims saying that the island is a 100% safe place for anyone, at all times. But for the three years that I’ve lived there, and during my subsequent visits to Langkawi for the past 11 years, I have often gone out on my own and returned home late at night with no anxiety or fear for my safety. Likewise, I was never harassed or experienced any unwanted annoyances.
Mental health retreats are not a new or unusual concept, especially in the Western world, but here in Asia, the idea that companies should support and empower their employees to take care of their own mental health is slow to catch on. But I am optimistic that it will. I’m sure there are places in Malaysia that are just as suitable as Langkawi for mental health retreats, but until I find such a place, Langkawi remains the number one choice for me. Affordable, accessible, and endlessly enjoyable, this is a fantastic island for restoring, renewing, and refreshing your state of mind.
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