MPs call for more mental health support for workers as work-from-home arrangement takes toll

The MPs highlighted the role different aspects of life such as family time, the arts and sports play in mental wellness.
The MPs highlighted the role different aspects of life such as family time, the arts and sports play in mental wellness.ST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The pivot to work-from-home (WFH) arrangements amid the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of workers here, said National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong.

He was one of seven MPs bringing the issue to attention, each highlighting the role different aspects of life such as family time, the arts and sports play in mental wellness.

They were speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (July 27) during the debate on the support measures for the current phase two (heightened alert) period.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, in his round-up speech, acknowledged the toll that Covid-19 has taken on the mental well-being of people here, and assured the House that the Government takes the issue very seriously.

In his speech, Mr Yong cited a March 2021 survey commissioned by human resource software firm Employment Hero, which showed that seven in 10 local employees had felt stressed by Covid-19 in the past six months.

In its engagement with workers, the Labour Movement found about two-thirds said they had experienced difficulties distinguishing work and non-work hours when working from home.

"This might be why Microsoft's Work Trend Index reported that 58 per cent of workers in Singapore said they felt overworked, while 49 per cent felt exhausted.

"But despite our high stress levels, there remains significant barriers to seeking assistance," said Mr Yong.

He cited costs as one barrier to seeking quality mental healthcare, noting that this was reflected by almost 80 per cent of respondents in a poll by SG Mental Health Matters.

"We must take concrete steps to break the stigma, and make quality mental healthcare more accessible to all Singaporeans," said Mr Yong.

Workers' Party MP Dennis Tan (Hougang) noted the difficulty in drawing a line between work and time off during WFH, and the toll it has taken on rest and family time.

And with more staying at home, he said there has been an increase in reports of disputes between neighbours over the last year.

Fellow WP MP Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) suggested a shorter four-day work week, saying it could result in better mental health outcomes, while Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) called for help to be given to employers to start employee-support programmes to promote mental wellness.

Ms Tan said people have had to also deal with the stress of adjusting their lives around Covid-19 restrictions and disruptions. "This has affected everyone in the way we live, work and play."

Such disruptions include restrictions on dining in and meeting people in person, said Nominated MP and Singapore Medical Association president Dr Tan Yia Swam, who was similarly highlighting the impact restrictions have had on mental health.

NMP Mark Chay, a former Olympic athlete and now national para swimming coach, said the disruptions have hit the sports and fitness industry hard.

He called for more help for the nearly 600 establishments in the sports and fitness industry, saying a benefit of staying active is that it strengthens mental health.

WP MP Raeesah Khan (Sengkang GRC) asked for more clarity on the grants that have been given to the sports and arts sectors, saying they share an intricate relationship with mental health.

She also highlighted the toll the pandemic has had on the younger generation, noting that students may be especially vulnerable to long-lasting mental health impacts.

"We need to pay closer attention to our younger generation. This pandemic is happening for them in their formative years, and will shape their perspective on life as they go on to become adults," she added.

But Ms Khan acknowledged that there has been increased awareness on youth mental health in recent years, with the issue incorporated into the character and citizenship education curriculum and groups formed to raise awareness among the young.

Still, she said more can be done, including establishing another tertiary psychiatric hospital. Ms Khan asked if the approach to mental health in Singapore's educational institutions should also be re-evaluated, to incorporate activities to deal with the impact of Covid-19.

Rounding up the debate, Mr Wong said the Government has set up a new inter-agency task force to bring together different government agencies to address mental health.

Chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, the group will provide a coordinated national response to the mental health needs of Singaporeans arising from the pandemic.

It had transited from the Covid-19 mental wellness task force that was announced last October.

"Together with our healthcare professionals and social service agencies, we have stepped up efforts and invested significant resources to enhance the mental well being of Singaporeans.

"And we will continue to do so - the focus areas include awareness, prevention, destigmatisation of mental health issues and treatment," said Mr Wong.


Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928/6509-0271 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ Tinkle Friend website (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)

Counselling

TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)