The Sunday Times-Staying in, burning out: Covid-19 casts spotlight on mental health at work, 22 Nov

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The Sunday Times - Staying in, burning out: Covid-19 casts spotlight on mental health at work

The blurring of lines between the workplace and home has put pressure on many workers, a Sunday Times survey finds

Calvin Yang
NOV 22, 2020, 5:00 AM SGT

SINGAPORE - For the past eight months, an operations manager has been monitoring performance trends and conducting meetings from his dining table, which he shares with his accountant wife.

In between work tasks, the 34-year-old grabs quick meals and looks after his active two-year-old son while his spouse is engaged in video calls. He also logs on close to midnight to clear work e-mails, sometimes working until 2am.

Being out of the office, he feels the need to be more plugged in and finds it hard to switch off when work messages appear on his phone. Coupled with that is the need for him to be more involved in childcare, now that he is always home and available to help.

"It is exhausting," he admitted. "In the past, at least I could tune out when I left the office."

It's a plight that is being played out in countless other homes.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with no end in sight, has forced many to adopt telecommuting and split team arrangements as the norm.

Though in themselves not stressful, the prolonged set up has blurred the lines between the workplace and home, leading to workers feeling stressed and risking burnout, observers told The Sunday Times. Many, especially women, are finding that the duties of home and office are now encroaching on each other and demanding their attention, often at the same time.

An ST poll of 1,200 respondents last week found that 71 per cent feel more stressed since they started working from home. The survey also noted that 77 per cent - or three in four employees - on such work arrangements are putting in more hours than before.

Recognising that mental well-being is a growing concern, the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation issued an advisory last Tuesday (Nov 17) to get employers to address their workers' mental health needs.

Their recommendations include organising talks on the issue, training managers to spot signs of distress, and offering clarity on after-hours work communication.

Home doubles as office, but may be less conducive

While some workers enjoy the greater flexibility of working from home, many feel overwhelmed playing multiple roles.

Others stress over increased workloads from demanding bosses, working in less conducive spaces and being socially isolated.

NTUC assistant secretary-general and labour MP Melvin Yong has come across workers, especially professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), who have to juggle multiple responsibilities at home, including caring for their children and elderly parents, while trying to remain productive at work.

"Many now work increasingly longer hours as e-mails, calls and WhatsApp messages come in outside of their regular working hours," said Mr Yong, who has repeatedly raised the issue of workplace burnout in Parliament. "Some have Zoom work meetings in the night, which they never had before Covid-19."

Fellow NTUC assistant secretary-general and labour MP Desmond Choo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, noted that work has crept into personal spaces because of technology like messaging apps and videoconferencing. These have become even more prevalent with the pandemic.

"That means that work doesn't really end for our workers and many feel compelled to work non-stop," he said.

Mr Choo, who has met workers experiencing anxiety and depression working from home, said the pandemic has "reduced the traditional support structures to help employees cope with stress, while increasing the feeling of isolation".

In the past, they could unwind with colleagues over meals and breaks.

For many workers, their homes are not conducive to working.

Some households may have more than one family member doing virtual calls at the same time, while others do not even have proper work desks.

Sitting on the bed or sofa to work on the laptop is not ideal, said Mr Paul Heng, managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, who has met workers complaining of backaches and other ailments as their homes are not equipped with the right furniture for working long hours.

Fear of losing job amid recession-hit economy

The stress may be self-inflicted, as some workers may feel the need to live up to the expectations of their bosses and family members, Mr Heng added.

"Where do we draw the line between office hours and after? No one has the right answer because this is new. Many choose to err on the side of caution, that it is better to stretch the working hours."

This may have been heightened by the fear workers have of losing their jobs in the recession-hit economy.

Mr David Leong, managing director of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, feels, in fact, that the pressure from the job uncertainty is "greater than the presumed increased in workloading".

In the past few months, medical practitioners have also seen more complaints from workers of anxiety, insomnia and fatigue.

Dr Thomas Lee, consultant psychiatrist at The Resilienz Clinic, said his clinic has handled about 10 to 15 per cent more patients seeking help for work-related issues. Common complaints include feeling anxious, socially isolated and mentally exhausted.

Patients with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder may see their conditions worsen, he added.

Experts said, however, that while the pandemic has deepened the fault lines, work stress is a perennial problem, caused by poor bosses, overwork, and feelings of inadequacy, among other things.

The Government has taken notice, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announcing last month that an inter-agency task force will tackle the mental health needs of Singaporeans.

Senior clinical psychologist Jessie Chua said employers can start by creating an open and accepting work culture for workers to share their concerns.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem noted that employers may consider implementing workplace policies that value their workers' personal time or offer the flexibility to manage their working hours.

"When an organisation looks after its employees, it'll reflect positively on its business. Hence, paying attention to an organisation's mental wellness is a business imperative, and not just nice to have," she added.

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