Singaporeans spend most of their time at their workplaces, and in some sense, their workplace is their second home, and now, their workplace could be their home. How do we consider our colleagues? Are they like family to us? Are we working in a supportive environment?
Many a time, the workplace health and mental well-being of employees are compromised as business organisations focus on driving revenues and profits with little attention to safety, health and wellness of the staff. The impact of these is the negative effect on job-related attitude and job performance. In some instances, some workers may develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression over time if they are too overwhelmed. As such, there is an increasing need for employers to acknowledge the positive correlation between having good mental health in their workers and the productivity and success of the business.
Across all workplaces, we need to step up and start considering ‘wrap-around strategies’ to counter the negative effects of excessive work on employees’ mental health, one of which includes unhealthy stress levels especially when it’s so easy to blur the boundaries of work and personal time while we work from home. Organisations usually conduct one-off mental health awareness programmes as an attempt to spread awareness among employees in the hope of reducing the occurrence of mental health issues. However, by making these awareness programmes an annual occurrence, employees tend to find it a dread, and the messages no longer get through to them as effectively. On the other hand, how many employees would attend the programme if it were to be on a voluntary basis? Many companies are aware of this but are still trying to find the right balance between promoting mental wellbeing and business sustainability.
Employers and HR practitioners have to accept that mental health issues are more often than not deep-rooted, and cannot be solved easily with such band-aid solutions (as most people would expect). This calls for wrap-around strategies, which would mean tackling mental health issues at the fundamental level and preventing problems from cropping up in the first place. It is in no one’s interests to try tackling the situation only when things get out of hand.
Having the right mindset and attitude is pivotal. We need to start thinking of our employees as our very own family members. If so, what can we do to make them happy? Do we have a framework for a healthy workplace? Are there plans in place to provide employees with the necessary support? For one, organisations can take the first step to introduce more flexibility into the workplace, with working from home being a mandatory option these days, it is the most opportune moment to reframe workflow processes for the longer term. This includes creating a flatter hierarchy, where there are fewer layers of management and less formal divisions between the higher-ups and the rest of the staff. Employees will thus be more involved in decision-making processes, creating a greater sense of ownership and accountability. The greater involvement of staff in the organisation will allow them to develop into more confident and capable workers, as well as enhance employee satisfaction. With greater employee satisfaction comes a greater sense of empowerment and motivation – factors that are crucial towards the productivity of the organisation.
Do we need to start thinking of what are the overlooked essentials of employee wellbeing? In your organisation, what is the decision-making process (in terms of policies and other forms of red tape) like? At present, most workplaces have a ‘top-down’ approach, where decisions are made by the senior management of the organisation and information is then cascaded downwards to the lower levels. In such cases, the staff are not given a voice and have no contribution to any of the decision-making processes. In contrast, when employees are given a chance to contribute their ideas, this encourages employee engagement and motivates them to put in greater efforts to overcome challenges. In turn, employees will certainly gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Hence, while it is true that not all work-related decisions can be made by the middle or lower tier of the corporate hierarchy, organisations should allow employees some level of discretion and autonomy to provide feedback or inputs to the decision-making process where possible. Organisations that succeed at providing the autonomy, social connections and support to their employees are better able to foster physical and mental well-being.
Needless to say, a flatter organisation would be counter-productive if the supervisors or senior management are unwilling to let go of micro-management and to show care for their employees. Managers and supervisors should start making an effort to check in with their subordinates and to ensure that they are coping well with their workload. Moreover, this should occur frequently, rather than being a one-off occurrence. Perhaps the head of each department could act as a “Welfare Ambassador”, and check-in with the employees within the same department. Getting to know the people in the same team better will allow them to identify any mental health symptoms, no matter how small. One way to get it started would be to allocate mini bonding sessions daily, each lasting approximately 15 minutes (even if it is just a short video call check-in). During this time, take turns to talk about your day, or about any difficulties that you may be encountering. relationships and social support with co-workers can improve emotional connections and ease any mental stress and burden. Such baby steps will help develop the camaraderie among teams and improve everyone’s overall well-being in the long-run. However, Managers do need to take note that they are not professional counsellors and would need to draw healthy boundaries for themselves so as to not be overwhelmed by the transference of emotional issues. Learn to, for your own safety of boundaries, to openly and healthily bring up the subject of steering an emotionally and/or mentally troubled employee to seek professional help. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help.
Organisational structure aside, it is also important to ensure that the workplace has a conducive environment – one that fosters overall well-being of the staff. All work and no play will eventually take a toll on the employees’ health, both mentally and physically. If space constraint is not a problem, try allocating a room for staff to take short mental breaks. In other words, have a “chill” room! Do take note that this should be a separate space from the staff pantry, where employees usually have their meals or to grab a quick drink. Mental-break rooms, on the other hand, can be used for socialising or for employees to take a short rest. Such a room can be decorated in an informal style, with more comfortable furniture. There is absolutely no harm in placing a few beanbags or some sort for employees to relax on whenever they feel overwhelmed by their hectic schedules. For those working at home, perhaps remind them to take mental health breaks. HR could schedule it into company calendars as a reminder and these small steps could foster greater trust between employees and the company. Trust that their welfare is being considered in decisions and that they are not just a tool or a means to the company’s bottom line, but a life that they now also have a responsibility to steward.
In short, mental well-being is important for a productive workforce and a healthy workplace.We need to create an environment where employees feel welcomed and safe. Workplace mental health is not – and should not be – an issue that we sweep under the rug. We need to acknowledge that providing support to the colleagues around us holds great importance and that we cannot simply cast them aside, leaving them to deal with their troubles alone. Ultimately, assisting your employees and ensuring they have the best mental health support will go a long way.
Is there a reason why these virtual meetings are so exhausting? How is video calling different from face-to-face meetings in terms of mental load?
There have been many changes placed on us as a result of the government’s attempts to create social distancing between one another in response to the threat of COVID-19 in Singapore. For the employed, perhaps the most significant change involves having to work at home instead of working out of our regular workplaces away from home. Accordingly, the necessary attempts to communicate at work have now to be moved online since face-to-face meetings at work have been prevented. The result of having to conduct our regular conversations and discussions previously in the workplace to the online format means that facing the laptop to attend to vocational as well as social in one location becomes the common practice instead. There are certain characteristics of this practice which leaves users of video-conferencing fatigued:
(a) Previously at a regular meeting often at a conference site, the meetings carry a bigger social bearing. At a virtual meeting, this social bearing is reduced to what is visible only on a screen. Instead of the opportunity to scan the room previously which allows our eyes to adjust and therefore cope with eye strain, virtual meetings mean our gaze is now focused only on what is confined within this screen. We have to stare at this screen and then process everything we hear or see often over a protracted period within a certain frame. As a result, there can be visual overload and mental strain.
(b) Virtual meetings also require more effort than face-to-face meetings. We have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. In contrast to face-to-face encounters, virtual meetings require more effort to assess social and personal meaning because of the context. According to Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, there is a dissonance that emerges during virtual meetings because during this interaction between participants in this format, “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.” This dissonance or disconnection causes people to have conflicting feelings which add to the fatigue. This makes it difficult for people to relax into the conversation naturally.
(c) Dr Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology also describes the fatigue that can come from being watched because the camera is physically and constantly focused on us. In natural social settings, this does not happen. During virtual meetings, people can feel they are on stage and therefore, they feel the social pressure and are expected to perform. The larger the group, the stronger the pressure.
(d) There is also the stress that comes from delays on phone or conferencing systems or when the screen freezes. Glitches in the application of technology put pressure for the participants to ensure that relevant or significant information is not missed out, or to avoid misunderstanding information from what has been communicated. This becomes harder to slow down to clarify when there is a group meeting out of concern that questions could be seen as interference within a tenuous electronic connection.
(e) Visual overload and fatigue that comes from constant online viewing occur not only if meetings are long or frequent with its inherent stresses. The restriction to home has also placed reliance on engaging other activities online, eg. taking classes, ordering food, maintaining social connections outside the immediate family. If there is a practice of over-reliance on the computer screen to attend to other interests, the physical effort to position ourselves at a prolonged period in front of this screen can also create fatigue.
(f) The strain that comes from virtual meetings can be accumulative when meetings are arranged close to one another. Since the worker is already confined at home, virtual meetings can easily be scheduled one after another. The meetings can appear to be executed efficiently. But there may not be any mental breaks in between.
(g) Dr Petriglieri also noted that meeting online creates stress from being reminded that the familiar context has been disrupted by the pandemic. We are all coping within a crisis that has taken the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable in society and endangers our well-being. It is also stressful in the fact that we are used to separating different relationships such as family, friends or colleagues. But now they are all happening within the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects about themselves –context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals–and we find this healthy. When we find this variety reduced, we become disoriented and become more vulnerable to negative feelings. Over a prolonged period of the self-quarantine, he notes the effect: “We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”
How do you alleviate the exhaustion that comes with virtual meetings? Are you able to share a few tips or suggestions?
In light of the stresses and strains of increased virtual meetings as outlined, I would suggest the following:
(a) limit the video calls to only what is necessary; this implies that it is important to take breaks from electronic devices, in general, to avoid over-reliance on them and the subsequent emotional effects from excessive use,
(b) allow for the option to turn off cameras on yourself to be involved and/or face the screen off to one side so that you can concentrate without feeling the pressure to be on camera,
(c) plan breaks in between virtual meetings so that the body and mind have a chance for a break, eg. getting the body to move and stretch increases blood flow and reduce mental fatigue,
(d) if virtual meetings are unavoidable and long, learn to practice the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, takes 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. Remember that the electronic devices are our tools and not our master.
What can bosses or organizers of these meetings do to facilitate these meetings so people don’t leave the meetings feeling exhausted? (While taking into consideration, the time spent on these meetings, or the feelings of the attendees)
It may help to start the meeting by quickly checking in to each other’s well-being. Being ready to acknowledge that the virtual meetings are unusual and that working at home means having to accommodate other family members inconvenienced by the pandemic invites everyone to be mindful about coping collectively with the current disruption. Secondly, consider if virtual meetings are the best way to work. To prevent information overload, would sharing files be more effective? Or the use of the phone to communicate may be a better device in many cases if there is only simple information to share. Thirdly, it may help if the meeting agenda is clearly defined and the end of the meeting is outlined at the start to reduce mental fatigue. Can the meetings be brief knowing that other meetings may be required? If meetings are prolonged, plan for breaks.
What can attendees/employees do to reduce the number of hours spent on video calls? (for example, what they can say to their bosses, or to keep track of the time so everyone is on track)
There needs to be increased education all around related to this topic of fatigue that comes from increased video-conferencing. It is a condition exacerbated by changes at work because of the pandemic. Employees should know their limits. If they recognize when fatigue sets in from excessive computer use, they should limit themselves from relying on their electronic gadgets throughout the day. Research has already shown that excessive computer use is correlated with depression. With more apps available online, there is an increased potential to become more dependent on electronic devices already. During this pandemic, the pressure to depend on the computer through increased virtual meetings is intensified. It is times like this when the wise among us would learn to separate the benefits of computer use from its downsides.
In light of this knowledge, employees can be more proactive to define the perimeters in which they would like to have virtual meetings conducted. If they recognize when fatigue will set in because of prolonged virtual meetings, they can ask to clarify (or specify) to their managers how long the meetings will take to monitor their mental and physical strain. In cases when prolonged virtual meetings are unavoidable, they can clarify if permission can be given to practice adjustments such as moving around as a way of coping with eye strain or from limited mobility experienced during the meetings, avoid the direct exposure to the camera, mute the calls to focus on listening or take breaks after every hour. At times, a person may have to prepare for any interference from young children who find it hard to ignore the presence of the parent at home.
How do we instil positivity in our working lives, when the line between work and home is so blurred right now?
The pandemic and the subsequent quarantine is experienced as a period of adversity to some people. The emotional distress that comes from being quarantined has been recognized as common during this period. Common symptoms of this distress include fear, sadness, numbness, insomnia, confusion, anger, stress, irritability, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, low mood, emotional exhaustion and emotional disturbance (eg. paranoia, anxiety). More specifically, people are faced with the disruption to the routines they have set up to cope with their stressors before the imposition of the quarantine. Distress is experienced because of the effect of the disruption on their autonomy, their sense of competence (being in charge of their lives to cope with their lives), their connectedness and their sense of security. It is a test on our resilience and ability to cope.
At the same time, the very challenge of this situation also provides us with the opportunity to develop our resilience. The first step is to understand and remember that these circumstances are temporary and not permanent. Pandemics happen but they are not frequent in history. Secondly, realize that there is a way to cope with the circumstances. As such, coping with this current situation is priority. I would suggest the following:
(a) Establish a routine for yourself (and that of your children). By creating a structure to attend to work and recreation, you start to organize and occupy yourself with addressing your daily needs as well as that of your family.
(b) Be as active as possible to maintain a fitness level physically, mentally and relationally for yourself and with your family. This also helps to battle against boredom. There are exercise videos online which you and your children can participate together to exercise as well as bond together. Also, for a personal project, you can ask yourself, “What will it take for me to become physically and mentally and relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?” Be curious about how to grow your resilience and to nurture the best version of yourself. Or as a parent, create a project to help your child develop resilience in their own lives and ask, “How can I help my children become physically, mentally or relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?”
(c) Deal with boredom by creating projects that self-nurture, eg. start a hobby or clean out your closet. Competing personal tasks provide a sense of purpose and maintain a sense of competency despite the external circumstances. Creating plans daily offer a focus on accomplishing what is important to your well-being.
(d) Communicate more to avoid isolation as well as cope with boredom. This can be an opportunity to nurture relationships if you are in quarantine with family and to strengthen social bonds with them, or with your support group. Remember that kids may be stressed too from this experience. More time together can provide opportunities for increased play to increase bonding. Games are useful means to bring fun into your relationships and to develop socially besides your entertainment. It can also become a reminder that the family is safe and coping together.
(e) Be informed without being overwhelmed to cope with the anxiety that comes from the unknown. The Straits Times newspaper provide a useful daily update so that you can monitor the threat of the virus rather than obtaining information from cable news. There is much information on the virus today locally and globally so be careful not to become obsessed with the topic.
(f) If you find that your distress is becoming more intense, consider support for your mental health. Your mental health is very important for your daily and long-term functioning. Different places may offer telehealth support where you can consult a therapist or mental health professional. Some services are available online and they can be reached through email, phone calls, texts or video calls.
Workplace mental health is becoming an attractive proposition for employees and employers alike. Having a mentally healthy environment can help employees become happier, more productive and motivated individuals. Yet, mental health issues are often swept under the rug, simply because they can be touchy subjects to handle. In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) drew from data culled from 1000 respondents, and found that compared to an n representative of Singapore’s general population, the mental well-being of working adults was found listing – 13% more worse off, to be exact. In addition, another survey also found that 1-in-6 working adults experience “a relatively high level of stress”, compared to 1-in-10 non-working adults who expressed the same concerns. This stark contrast makes us wonder – Does working for ‘The Man’ make us miserable? Does that mean we can curtly reply “Money”, when the interviewer wants to know why we want that job?
Singapore is notorious for a fast pace of living, a country where your career helps to define you. With career advancement already firmly ensconced within our list of priorities (for the average Singaporean, at least), many tend to devote a good part of their waking hours to work, with less and less time being set apart for leisure and recreation. It makes sense then, that we should look to the workplace as a concept just as deeply implicated in our happiness (or lack thereof) as home and family.
Employers who pay scant attention to the mental health issues of their employees will soon find that such a business model doesn’t pay long-term dividends. In fact, it may end up costing them – there are countless studies out there detailing and actually quantifying the monetary costs of poorly managing workplace mental health. Intuitively, we’ve already known this without having to be told – if the only free time you’re allotted for a restroom break has to be taken during your 10-minute lunch, then you’ve probably seen fit to leave your bootstraps in the toilet. Employers, too, know the sting of cynical, burned out employees making full use of paid medical leave.
In this case, not only does the organisation have to pony up the employee’s sick leave entitlement, they also have to incur the opportunity cost of the work the employee would have contributed if they were present and productive. The organisation thus suffers financially. Moreover, mental health issues can precipitate workplace bullying and harassment. Employees may start feeling disempowered, demotivated and dissatisfied with their jobs. The overall workplace morale takes a plunge.
In light of this, we have to acknowledge that we, more often than not, overlook an extremely important factor which makes or breaks the mental well-being of employees in the workplace.
I am reminded of the movement of person-centered decision making in the workplace by the pithy saying: “Nothing About Me Without Me”.¹ It serves to remind people that even though individuals with mental health issues may be deprived of 100% lucidity and perspicacious decision making abilities, others should, as a principle, accord them the same respect, and not make any decisions without consulting with them. This is especially so if these potential choices might affect the employee’s quality of life. When making considerations which may impinge on another’s life, it’s only good manners to make sure that everyone affected is a stakeholder.
Mental health issues tend to attract the kind of hushed conversations that we want to avoid. It’s simply improper to gossip about such deeply personal issues. Conversations regarding the affected individual shouldn’t take place without their “blessing”, either. If I were to take a charitable interpretation of such water-cooler talk, I might say, after all, people may not know the right approach to handle these situations, or they may simply be misguided in their good intentions!
Some useful guidelines for professionalism at the workplace. If you are, for example, a HR-manager and suspect that an employee of yours requires help with a personal mental health issue, do not:
Apprise superiors of his condition without seeking his permission first
Try to “ease his burden” by lessening his workload in an attempt to “help” him cope with his condition without consulting him beforehand
Instead, as soon as any discussion is started about the individual, he should be brought into the fray and not be left in the dark. The point here is about giving back control to the person in question, and allowing him to understand that he is still equally respected regardless of his mental health.
What happens if these pointers are neglected? Unfortunately, diminishing the employee’s workload without consulting him first may chip away at his sense of self-worth, since he is stripped of the ability to demonstrate his capabilities. Moreover, having your superiors talk about you behind your back can in some ways, make you feel discriminated against for having a mental disorder. This breeds a sense of distrust amongst colleagues, which erodes the fabric of work cooperation. Not respecting someone’s dignity and right to make decisions can also hinder his/her mental recovery process. Needless to say, such workplace environments are deeply unprofessional outfits which detract from productivity and dignity.
We should thus focus on what we can do to make our workspaces better places, and mentally healthier ones. We should start taking “Nothing About Me Without Me” seriouusly. We need to start recognising its importance to a well-oiled outfit and how it helps foster pride and dignity. In fact, we should help this principle take root at the organisational level, such as including people with past experiences of mental health issues in the development and expansion of workplace mental health policies, or seeking their input when it comes to planning activities in service of mental well-being. Policies centered on transparency and proper communication should also be developed as adjuncts to ensure that the organisation is committed to making sure employees’ voices are heard when it comes to issues of mental health and their careers. If more organisations are willing to take these steps, there’s no doubt our workplaces will slowly become more conducive and nurturing environments. How is your company contributing towards making your workplace a mentally healthier one? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, so we’re all better off for having heard these ideas.
¹ Golding, E. and Diaz, P. (2020) Mental Wealth. New York: Morgan James Publishing.
Requiring that potential job applicants declare their mental health conditions on hiring forms is now considered discriminatory.
In a much-needed move that’s been hailed by mental health advocates across the island, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) has updated its guidelines to better advance the meritocratic underpinnings of Singapore’s economy. Prior to this change, TAFEP had already nixed disability declarations on job applications – abolishing mental health declarations takes this principle to its logical conclusion.
In a firm but fair recommendation, TAFEP advises employers against asking potential hires for personal information “such as their mental health condition”, unless there is a “job related requirement”. Further, if employers are to seek information that may be seen as discriminatory, the onus is on them to elucidate the necessity of that information.
This isn’t toothless rhetoric – employers who flout the guidelines risk exposing themselves to enforcement action by the Ministry of Manpower.
Such measures are invaluable beachheads in the fight to destigmatise mental disorders, a movement which has gained traction among some Members of Parliament. Last year, Nominated MP Anthea Ong called on the Government to make mental health a national priority, pointing out that more people (1 in 7) were afflicted by a mental disorder than diabetes (1 in 9).
More Singaporeans are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and alcohol addiction, as evinced by the 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS), with numbers increasing since the first and inaugural SMHS in 2010.
The relevant authorities encourage you to report work-related discrimination by calling 6838-0969 during office hours or visit www.tal.sg/tafep
There has been a growing awareness of the need for mental health wellness in corporate work settings. For one, employers are recognizing how work stress negatively impacts an individual’s job performance and productivity. According to a survey reported by Forbes, 31% of responding employees experience extremely high levels of stress at work, thereby affecting productivity and innovation.
Thus, as reported by the Straits Times on 25 March 2019, companies have started to view wellness programmes not only as an employee benefit or responsibility, but also as performance strategy for the company.
In today’s world, such work stress seems inevitable due to competition, cost-cutting measures, and the intrusion of work into our personal lives through technology. Few cope well with sustaining these increasing demands and pressures in their work place. Thus, companies that are committed to safeguarding their employees’ mental well-being are empowering them with tools to manage their stress at work.
Such tools are available at Promises Healthcare through our Employee Assistance Programme (“EAP”). The EAP is premised on the belief that mental health has a direct correlation to the performance and productivity of the employee. Appropriate outlets for employees to address their psychological concerns can help alleviate stress, leading to a positive and more balanced mental disposition. This in turn will contribute more effectively towards the goals of the organization.
Promises has developed and provided EAP services for a number of major corporations over the years. EAP services include Employee Training Packages, Critical Incident Intervention, Critical Incident Consultancy for Senior Management, Media Information Management, Individual and Group Counselling, Confidential Helpline services, and Family Support programmes.
Currently, Promises is actively providing EAP services to
Singapore Press Holdings,
Exyte Singapore Pte. Ltd.,
Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS),
Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ),
Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA Singapore),
Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA),
Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) and more.
Our customer references include present and past clients, such as the