Stressed out over work? Help at hand

Govt acts to tackle issue as survey here finds 22% of respondents reported high level of stress since Covid-19, against 5% for pre-pandemic pressure

As workers and bosses start to pay more attention to mental health, insurers too have been launching new initiatives in this area.
As workers and bosses start to pay more attention to mental health, insurers too have been launching new initiatives in this area.PHOTO: ST FILE

An accountant was so afraid that he would be retrenched amid the Covid-19 pandemic that he could not concentrate at work, his productivity plummeted and he began to suffer from anxiety and insomnia.

The sole breadwinner was worried about having to pay the mortgage while supporting two young children and his pregnant wife, who eventually took him to see psychiatrist Seng Kok Han after noticing her husband staring blankly at the computer.

His plight is far from rare these days with more employees here reporting high stress levels.

Dr Seng, a consultant psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre, says he has seen about 20 per cent more patients seeking help for work-related stress in the last few months, and the numbers could increase if the pandemic drags on.

A survey by consultancy Mercer done between July and September found that 22 per cent of the 750 respondents here reported a high level of pressure since the pandemic. Yet just 5 per cent said their stress levels were high before the pandemic.

The survey also noted that 74 per cent said they worked on rest days or beyond regular work hours.

Dr Seng says the blurring of lines between the workplace and home, which often now doubles as an office but may not be as conducive, can also be a key cause of pressure during this time. He cites one patient who had to sit on the floor with his laptop on a stool as there were other family members occupying the only work space in the house.

Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) president Low Peck Kem says the fear of losing one's job has also been one of the major concerns for workers.

"In this current climate of higher unemployment, economic uncertainty and flexible work arrangements, the workforce is naturally stressed over job security, income security, how their jobs - if they are lucky enough to remain employed - might change...and whether they are skilled to be ready for those new roles," she says.

Mental health advocate and former nominated MP Anthea Ong says work stress predates the pandemic. It can be induced by worries that an employee feels unable to meet job demands or that their role lacks meaning or perhaps from concerns over relationships, which could arise from conflict with colleagues or from prejudice or discrimination.

The Government has taken notice, announcing this month that a Tripartite Advisory on Mental Health to help employers improve staff well-being will be published by the end of this year.

And on World Mental Health Day on Oct 10, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that a new inter-agency task force has been convened to provide a coordinated national response to the mental health needs of Singaporeans due to the pandemic.

As workers and bosses start to pay more attention to mental health, insurers too have been launching new initiatives in this area.

All 1.2 million or so employees of AIA's corporate customers will be able to sign up for a complimentary four-week training programme from next month to cultivate a "resilience mindset", AIA Singapore chief executive Wong Sze Keed tells The Sunday Times.

AXA Insurance launched an employee benefits programme last week with optional add-ons, including fitness and wellness classes via ClassPass as well as mental wellness support from digital therapeutics firm Naluri.

Aviva, NTUC Income and Prudential Singapore corporate customers can include psychiatric treatment coverage in their group plans.

In terms of individual insurance, AIA also insures against five mental illnesses, including major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, while Prudential has a maternity plan covering psychological consultations and postpartum depression.

SHRI's Ms Low says workers can also take steps like eating healthily and taking breaks to look after their mental health. "We all need to exercise self-care, to make sure we ride through this crisis and come out stronger and fitter," she adds.


Tips for managing work stress

It's no surprise many of us are stressed given the way the pandemic has put jobs at risk and forced people to drastically change where and how they work, but there are ways to cope.

Acknowledge that you are stressed and then take steps to look after your well-being. Here are five tips:

1. Practise self-care

Adopt a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and adequate sleep and exercise, says Dr Seng Kok Han, a consultant psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre.

Identify negative thoughts that can be irrational, change them to helpful ones and focus on what you can do to improve situations. But be realistic and learn to accept what you cannot change, he adds.

"Support others within your capacity, such as by checking on them and providing a listening ear... After all, altruism is known to be an effective coping mechanism," he says.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem recommends investing in building relationships and having engaging conversations with colleagues and bosses, especially when working remotely.

It takes more effort to consciously "meet" when working from home instead of in the office, so consider scheduling such social interactions into your calendar, she says.

2. Set boundaries between work and rest if working from home

Stick to a routine that mirrors your regular office day. This helps provide structure even if your personal and work spaces have merged, says Dr Seng.

There is no need to feel guilty about not responding to non-urgent work texts and e-mails after office hours.

Employers should respect such boundaries and not hold meetings outside workday hours just because everyone can attend them remotely.

3. Create a conducive workspace where possible

Remote working is likely to remain the norm for many people, so make your workplace conducive by decluttering and being organised, says Dr Seng.

If possible, create separate physical spaces for taking work and social calls to differentiate between these aspects of your life.

Dr Seng recommends having ground rules in your home for work and communicating these clearly to family members.

If all these do not help, try having an honest conversation with your manager to work out alternative arrangements.

4. Employers can play a part

Organisations are coming up with more novel ways to introduce mental wellness programmes even in the virtual workplace, says Ms Low. These include art therapy, workout classes, mental wellness webinars and professional counselling sessions.

Bosses should also engage more often with employees and create a buddy system to encourage staff to check in with one another, adds Ms Low.

Mental health advocate and former nominated MP Anthea Ong calls on employers to reframe the workplace "not as the cause of mental ills but as a source of positive mental well-being".

This means proactively supporting employees in the different roles that they play outside of work, such as in the family or community, so that they are in the pink of health mentally because of their time at work and in the workplace.

She cites a multinational energy firm that started providing workshops on homeschooling skills as well as counselling support for staff with young children when schools moved to home-based learning. The firm plans to continue offering parenting programmes beyond Covid-19.

Another global consulting company has also implemented support structures for employees who are caregivers of seniors with special needs.

Ms Ong suggests that bosses share honestly with workers about their own mental health difficulties, which not only builds trust and breaks the stigma around these issues, but also helps the bosses become more at ease with who they are.

5. Seek professional help if needed

Dr Seng notes that every crisis can be an opportunity to become even more resilient towards stress.

However, if anxiety symptoms are prolonged, excessive and out of proportion,

they can cause disability and lead to emotional problems and depression.

Dr Seng advises that in such scenarios, it is important to seek professional help.