COVID-19 SPECIAL

From virtual mindfulness classes to eating together online, companies are giving staff mental health support

DBS Bank vice-president of group strategic marketing and communications Michelle Tan participating in a virtual pilates session with her four-year-old daughter.
DBS Bank vice-president of group strategic marketing and communications Michelle Tan participating in a virtual pilates session with her four-year-old daughter.PHOTO: DBS BANK

SINGAPORE - During an online workshop by social movement Hush TeaBar, lawyer Jeffery Tan drew a round-faced man with arrows pointing in and out from the face.

He was drawing himself, the 59-year-old says, adding that the picture reflected his underlying frustration at "a loss of human connection that technology cannot bridge".

The group general counsel at investment holding company Jardine Cycle & Carriage has been working from home since Feb 10.

He was among 50 employees from the subsidiaries of Jardine Matheson Group who attended the 90-minute experiential empathy session via Zoom on April 22.

During the session, led by Hush TeaBar's deaf facilitators and people recovering from mental health conditions, Mr Tan says they learnt to get in touch with their emotions - and one another.

Other companies here have also stepped up measures to help telecommuting employees stay mentally healthy and connected.

Every Wednesday at 10am since March, Mr Peter Etheridge, 37, and more than 20 of his colleagues at advertising agency TBWA Singapore have been attending a mindfulness programme via video-conferencing platform WebEx.

The regional group brand director has been working from home since March and never imagined he would miss his 15-minute morning bus commute. His home and office are in Alexandra.

He would use the commute time to "clear some headspace" before "jumping into work". But now, "the daily routine of going from my bedroom straight to the 'office' gives the brain little time to rest and digest", he says, adding that he is also feeling the strain of isolation and remote communication.

At DBS Bank, staff can join virtual wellness programmes like pilates and yoga.

Ms Michelle Tan, 36, its vice-president of group strategic marketing and communications, regularly kick-starts her days with one of these activities - sometimes accompanied by her four-year-old daughter. She says the workouts have helped stave off burnout as she juggles work and family commitments.

 
 
 
 

To support parents working from home, global technology company HP launched Print & Play, a free, family-friendly initiative, in April. The Singapore office uploaded more than 300 printable craft projects - such as colouring pages, join-the-dots worksheets and jigsaw puzzles - to help keep children occupied.

The company also collaborated with its partner DreamWorks Animation to roll out a Family Fridays movie night, where staff can stream films like How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019).

HP is also among a handful of companies that encourage their employees to have meals or drinks together online to keep spirits up.

Other companies which do so include fintech solutions provider Fintech Alliance, fintech platform Funding Societies, cyber security firm Horangi, and Rewardz, which develops digital engagement and recognition platforms.

At Funding Societies, employees are forging new friendships with the Food For Talk initiative, a monthly cross-department gathering where staff bond over conversations.

Another virtual bonding activity is the #haveyoucheckedin movement, started by insurer AIA Singapore's talent and organisation development team. Last month, staff shared pictures of their home workstations on social media and tagged other departments to join in the "challenge" as a fun way to keep one another engaged.

To ensure employees have access to adequate emotional support at all times, local companies are also signing up for the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which offers confidential personal counselling for corporate clients. The programme is run by clinics and other external organisations.

EAP providers tell The Sunday Times they have observed an increase in inquiries about the service in the past month - a sign that more employers are prioritising mental health.

 
 
 

Beyond having the EAP in place, property company Lendlease also has a team of Mental Health First Aiders who have attended a two-day training course on supporting the people around them.

In recent months, this team has been mobilised to promote Uprise - an app to help manage stress and anxiety - among colleagues.

Reinsurance company Swiss Re, which organises regular discussions about mental health issues even in pre-Covid-19 times, is holding Web sessions on dealing with solitude and other topics catering to parents and interns who just joined. The company is also in the midst of conducting an employee well-being survey.

Mr Sanjiv Agarwal, 47, its head of human resources for South-east Asia, says: "Though challenges like feeling alone or managing a busy job and family are not new, they are magnified in times of crisis.

"What we can and must do is ensure our employees feel safe and supported and know we care about them and their families."