SINGAPORE - Six months since Singapore confirmed its first Covid-19 case, and a month into the second phase of the reopening of the country's economy, people are still grappling with the fallout from the pandemic.
Experts and companies interviewed say that for many employees, the emotional toll includes fears around getting the infection as much as anxiety tied to the economic uncertainty and job stability.
The United Nations highlighted in May the need to prioritise mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that while it is "a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well".
Dr Sanveen Kang, principal clinical psychologist at Psych Connect clinic, says employees have had to grieve the loss of their roles, adjust quickly to new work demands, learn new skills without much training and deal with the loss of relationships at work due to social distancing measures or their peers losing jobs.
She says: "The psychological impact of the pandemic on an employee going back to work during phase two has been stress, worry, high levels of uncertainty and lowered mood. Moreover, those with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder may find that these are being exacerbated by the current conditions."
To help employees keep up their spirits, some companies here have introduced support measures such as helplines or regular catch-up sessions.
Such on-the-ground support for employees was one of the top priorities of the organisations in Singapore that took part in a poll of more than 1,000 human resource and in-house healthcare professionals worldwide, conducted by medical and security services firm International SOS.
French multinational company Idemia is one of the companies stepping up their mental health benefit offerings for employees. The company has more than 100 employees in its Singapore office, of which 60 per cent are working at home.
The company specialising in security and identity solutions has been implementing various forms of support for its staff since April.
One of its key activities is weekly webinars where a professional is invited to give a presentation about topics such as how to maintain to one's mental health while working from home and communicating effectively when working remotely.
Ms Nathalie Rascle, Idemia's vice-president of human resources for the Asia-Pacific region, says some employees said they struggled to adjust to working in the same space with family or being alone during the circuit breaker and under continued work-from-home arrangements. The stress was also amplified by the feeling of isolation and losing touch with the team and the community, she added.
"We have received a fair number of inquiries, roughly 20 per cent, requesting support as they were worried about Covid-19 and were facing difficulties in their personal lives."
The company organised a live webinar with a doctor last month to allow its employees across the Asia-Pacific region to share their concerns and receive medical assistance.
Ms Rascle said the aim of the live session was to share information with employees on Covid-19 and strategies on prevention and mitigation of the virus.
Employees could ask questions verbally or via the chat function during the session and were also offered the option to get in touch with the doctor individually.
CATCH-UP SESSIONS TO FOSTER BONDS
The company also holds bi-weekly catch-up sessions with the management team where they share professional updates and personal insights on how they are coping with Covid-19. Non-work related conversations, from movies to music, are also encouraged to foster social connections among employees.
Employees can also access an online platform for career and personal development training resources, which includes well-being at work.
Clinical psychologist Felicia Neo of Neo Cooper Psychology Clinic said some individuals may encounter certain levels of social anxiety because they have been in isolation for an extended period of time.
"They would commonly express fears and anxiety about reintegrating back into the working environment," says Dr Neo.
She notes that most of the returning employees would also continue to have a cloud of fear over their heads with regard to potential retrenchment and salary reductions.
The need to cope with constant changes, uncertainty and the lack of predictability can cause overwhelming stress.
"Many individuals also feel alone throughout this process, as everyone feels and reacts differently to the pandemic. We are all in the same stormy sea but everyone's boat is different; this can lead to an amplified sense of isolation," says Dr Neo.
United Overseas Bank (UOB) has also been providing support for its employees.
This includes webinars by doctors on how to build mental resilience, tips on emotional, physical and mental well-being, and a peer-support programme where 50 of its employees have been trained at the Centre For Effective Living to spot signs of mental health issues among their colleagues.
"Many (staff) are unaware that they have mental health problems. Such initiatives demystify the topic and provide an avenue for people to discuss it openly," says Mr Dean Tong, head of group human resources at UOB.
A survey on staff morale during this period found that 80 per cent of them are coping well. "The other 20 per cent were not coping well due to adjustments they have had to make to continue working, either at home or in the office," says Mr Tong.
This includes the fear of contracting the virus while travelling to work and not having a conducive environment to work in at home.
Since 2011, the bank has provided a mental health care hotline manned by mental health professionals from the Health Promotion Board and another hotline by International SOS offering emotional support. Its use has increased since the pandemic, Mr Tong notes.
Dr Kang says stress and fears brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic may affect an employee's performance, causing increased errors, reduced motivation, productivity and pleasure derived from work.
"Mental health impacts productivity and, in the long run, physical well-being. Reduced mental and physical well-being is related to higher rates of absenteeism from work. This is related to the amount of money companies spend on medical and pharmacy costs for employees," says Dr Kang.
She adds that this could be eased if emphasis is placed on creating workplaces that support psychological well-being and if employees seek professional support for their mental health needs.
Dr Neo also highlights the need to prioritise mental health as employees return to work.
"Maintaining good mental health in the workplace will provide employees with a more secure sense of emotional safety, and which will encourage them to seek support and help if and when required.
"This also helps decrease the long standing stigma associated with mental health and will assist those who are struggling to come forward to get proper help."
TIPS ON HOW WORKERS CAN KEEP THEIR SPIRITS UP
While many organisations are focusing on how to protect their employees' physical health during the coronavirus pandemic, less attention has been devoted to mental health, said International SOS medical director Low Kiang Wei.
But mental health is just as important as physical health, especially at a time when people are facing multiple stressors, an unprecedented change in daily activities and uncertainty about the future.
Dr Low gives tips on how employees can maintain a healthy mind during this period.
1. ACCEPT YOUR WORRIES
Embracing rather than suppressing emotional reactions to the pandemic can have a positive impact, as you may develop a deeper understanding of the dangers and necessary precautions to mitigate the risks.
2. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
Consider aspects of the situation that you can and cannot control. For those who cannot work from home, focus on measures that can reduce the risk of contracting the virus, such as washing your hands and wearing a mask, to assert a greater sense of control in an uncertain situation.
3. MAINTAIN HEALTHY BOUNDARIES BETWEEN WORK AND HOME
For those who work from home, it can be tempting to do their work in bed. Instead, try to keep to a designated space just for work. This helps maintain the boundaries between work and home life, and minimises distractions or interruptions from family members or pets or the lure of going back to bed.
4. CREATE NEW GOALS
While your previous long-term plans or goals for the year might have to be scrapped, try to set small, realistic and specific goals. These weekly or monthly goals can be anything that is achievable and enjoyable to you - be it exercise goals or planning small social gatherings that will give you a sense of accomplishment.
5. MAKE TIME FOR REST
Some people may find themselves working longer hours while working from home, because they are not tethered to the workplace and can work anywhere, any time.
Assess your work routine and make sure you are taking breaks during the day. Consider taking your annual leave even if you are not going away.
It can also be refreshing to make time for activities that you might have missed for the past few months, such as connecting with friends or colleagues.
6. DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP
Employees who feel overwhelmed should seek the support of mental health professionals such as counsellors and psychologists. They can offer different perspectives or guide employees to realise possible solutions by reframing issues that seemed intractable, or lend a listening ear to those in distress.
7. BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Recognise that it is normal to find the pandemic situation hard and that you will have good and bad days. Acknowledge what you are achieving and lower your expectations of yourself as your mental, emotional, social and physical resources are depleted.
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.