How Covid-19 changed the way we live, work and shop in Singapore

People of all ages have felt the strain since the pandemic began. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The pandemic has hit life's fast-forward button, catapulting people into a future of Zoom calls and hybrid work arrangements.

Insight looks at some of the biggest ways in which Covid-19 has changed the way Singaporeans live, work and shop.

How we live: Greater focus on mental well-being

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

Mental health conditions used to be spoken of in a whisper, if they were brought up at all.

But the pandemic has put an end to that - ironically, by taking such a toll on psychological well-being that people have become more willing to speak up, knowing others are in the same boat.

As Dr Chew Yat Peng, a principal counsellor with non-profit organisation O'Joy, puts it: "Seeing a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a counsellor for mental health issues has become as normal and as important as seeing a doctor for physical health issues."

Last September, a poll commissioned by The Straits Times showed that mental health had declined since the pandemic began. Three-quarters of the 1,000 respondents said they felt sad or depressed. Another two-thirds reported feeling lonely.

An earlier study by the Institute of Mental Health found that 13 per cent of the population experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression between May 2020 and June last year.

People of all ages felt the strain. Some found it hard to put up with enforced isolation, while others were irked by the constant presence of others around them.

But the upshot is that more conversations on mental health are now taking place in the open. Ideally, this momentum will continue, with everyone pitching in to raise awareness of issues and help solve the problem.

"As a community, we can strive towards understanding that mental health issues occur on a spectrum and will affect most people at some point in their lives," Dr Chew said.

This would encourage people to be kinder to others experiencing such challenges, and help society become more psychologically resilient, she said.

Employers also have a role to play, said Singapore Counselling Centre's chief well-being officer John Shepherd Lim. For example, companies could consult mental health professionals to refine their policies, so as to better support employee well-being.

At the national level, hospitals are expanding their psychiatric services and the Government is studying the possibility of setting up a permanent mental health office.

Four areas need work, said Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary in the debate on his ministry's budget in March.

These are: strengthening family support and services, improving mental health literacy, boosting access to mental healthcare and providing employment support for those with mental health conditions.

Having an open discussion on mental health is always daunting. But as Covid-19 has shown, mental well-being is a necessary complement to physical well-being, and we neglect it at our own peril.

How we work: Hybrid work is now the mainstream option

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

Five years ago, the vast majority of companies saw remote work as an unrealistic option, while flexible work was frowned upon.

Only 6.2 per cent of firms in 2017 allowed their staff to work from home permanently, and many employers did not trust people to work remotely without skiving off.

When flexible arrangements were available, they were typically offered to people whose work was seen as "more dispensable or less important", said then MP Lee Bee Wah in Parliament.

The Covid-19 pandemic has banished some of these prejudices. Two years on, employers have come to recognise that people can be trusted to work from home. In some cases, they are even more productive.

At the same time, employees have come to realise there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

This has set the stage for a new era of hybrid work, where people toggle between home and office, depending on their work requirements.

This best-of-both-worlds approach is particularly appealing to certain segments of the population. A survey published by the Institute of Policy Studies in April found that women - especially caregivers - were most likely to favour flexible work arrangements or working from home.

One way to take things forward would be to share success stories of employers that have found a good balance between both settings, suggested Associate Professor Terence Ho, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

This could include sharing best practices for hybrid workplaces that score high on both productivity and employee welfare, he said.

One example is UOB, which allows staff to work remotely two days a week.

Mr Dean Tong, the bank's head of group human resources, said it decided on this set-up to give people flexibility without compromising on face time. While remote work arrangements during the pandemic was effective, doing so can also lead to disengagement and isolation, he added.

But even with everyone back in the office, it is a good idea for companies that started regular check-ins on worker well-being to keep up that pandemic-era practice.

"We can be easily deluded by the fact that physical presence automatically means increased cohesion and support," said Singapore Counselling Centre's chief well-being officer, Mr John Shepherd Lim.

"However, being alert in noticing signs of distress and proactive in reaching out to colleagues who seem down, or who we know do not have good social support systems... would continue to contribute to collective well-being."

How we shop: Digital connections and supply chain fractures

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

It is more convenient than ever to get everything you want, without ever leaving your home.

New clothes? Double-click. Spiritual fulfilment? There's an app for that. A piping hot meal from your favourite hawker stall, delivered straight to your doorstep? No problem.

Digital connections flourished during the pandemic, as organisations sought to link up with consumers who could no longer travel to them. Even the smallest businesses have seen the wisdom of going online, which is good news for Singapore's smart nation ambitions.

In essence, the pandemic gave local digitalisation efforts a strong shot in the arm, noted Dr Woo Jun Jie, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

By capitalising on these efforts, the country can accelerate its transition towards a smart nation, he said.

On the other hand, the lifting of most Covid-19 restrictions here also suggests that bricks-and-mortar business could pick up again.

OCBC chief economist Selena Ling expects retail sales to grow by 5.5 per cent this year, up from her earlier 3.5 per cent forecast.

"There's been an uptick in discretionary sales, including for cosmetics, fashion apparel and footwear, watches and jewellery in the March retail sales reading," she said.

Apart from forging digital connections, the pandemic also exposed weak spots in global supply chains.

Early on, countries imposed export restrictions on masks and other protective equipment to address domestic shortages. In Singapore, the authorities worked to diversify imports to prevent food security from becoming a pressing concern.

Even now, supply chain snarls - caused in part by Covid-19 lockdowns and labour shortages, and prolonged by the war in Ukraine - have resulted in long delays on shipments of all kinds.

The importance of supply chain resilience cannot be underestimated and will drive structural shifts in the way companies behave, Ms Ling said.

These include moving from a "just in time" to "just in case" business model, as well as the adoption of a "China plus one" strategy to diversify operations.

Companies have also forged partnerships across sectors, developing ecosystems to meet consumer demand, added Mr Atul Chandna, who leads EY Asia-Pacific's supply chain segment. Functions such as last-mile delivery, for instance, were outsourced to specialised service providers.

Employers have also begun to look into upskilling or reskilling their workforce, so they have the talent pool they require, Mr Atul added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.