Written by Daniel Tay
As lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to force employees to work from home, much of the conversation about remote working has been focused on its positive impact on employees’ work-life balance and mental health.
In one study, one in three Singapore employees reported feeling more productive since they started working from home during the pandemic. And 35% of workers said their mental health had improved, with 27% attributing this to being able to work from home.
But while remote work has proven to be a gift for many, it’s also been a challenge for others. Remote work is blurring the lines between people’s professional and personal lives.
For example, a study by Cigna found that 63% of employees working from home in Singapore suffered from work-related stress in April—5% higher than in January, before lockdown orders were initiated. Those surveyed said working from home only exacerbated their “always-on” work culture, with employers expecting them to be plugged-in around the clock to answer work calls, emails, and messages.
There’s also the issue of loneliness—a problem that’s long been associated with remote working. According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019, 19% of remote workers struggle with social isolation.
All of this shows that COVID-19 isn’t just creating an experiment in remote working—it’s also a watershed moment for employee mental health in Singapore.
Improving workplace resilience to support mental health
The good news is that companies in Singapore are taking action and fixing problems that have existed long before COVID-19.
Appearing in a keynote sharingl at the recently held LIT DISCOvery 2020 by Young NTUC (Youth Wing of the National Trades Union Congress), Lim Ming Pey, Managing Director of Organisation and People at Temasek International, shared her insights on how employers can support their employees’ mental health during these trying times.
“The need to focus on mental wellness and the broader subject of workplace resilience is more relevant now than ever,” she explains. “As more of us are working remotely, we are facing new anxieties. The boundaries are blurring—we start work earlier, we end work later.”
Temasek International has a head start when it comes to implementing mental health initiatives. Since 2015, the company has launched a series of mental wellness activities under its Make-A-Difference (MAD) programme. MAD is aimed at nurturing a corporate culture of accountability to one’s self, family, institution, and community.
Mental wellness in the workplace has since become a focus area of MAD, thanks to increased awareness about the problem of mental health in Singapore. This, in turn, led to the creation of mental wellness activities in the company, such as a mandatory mental health first aid course for staff.
“The course helps you learn about the different types of mental illnesses, how to spot the symptoms, what are the risks you need to look out for, and where to go for help, either for yourself or your loved ones,” Lim shares. “This was very well received by our staff.”
As Temasek International transitions to the ‘new normal’ of living under a pandemic, the company rolled out a new workforce resilience initiative that comprises resources, communications, intranet articles, and regular feedback mechanisms designed to help both their leaders and staff cope with their new work environment.
Below are some of the key takeaways from this initiative.
Communicate well and often
Communication is a cornerstone of this pillar as it encourages staff to reach out when they need help or simply want to be heard. Lim says leaders must be calm and compassionate during these trying times so that they can be a source of strength and support for their teams.
This may seem like common sense, but the coronavirus pandemic has created gaps in communication between employers and employees. According to research by Qualtrics and SAP conducted during March and April 2020, nearly 40% of respondents said their company has not asked them how they’re doing since COVID-19 broke out. Workers in this group are also 38% more likely to say their mental health has declined since the pandemic began. What’s more, over 40% say that they wish their managers would ask them how they’ve been coping.
Maintain clear boundaries
For teams that are working from home, constant communication is important to make up for the lack of interaction caused by social distancing.
“We have to remind leaders to connect frequently. You can’t run into people in the corridor in the office anymore so they need to put more effort in scheduling regular check-ins with team members,” Lim says.
But she notes that Temasek also recognizes the need to maintain a clear balance between work and personal life at home.
“We remind our leaders to set clear boundaries and to be mindful of how they use Skype or WhatsApp, and what time of the day to send messages,” she says.
Leaders must also make concessions when family life enters their employees’ professional sphere. Lim shares that Temasek International CEO Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara really made a difference when he told everyone in the workforce not to be embarrassed when their baby cries during a work call.
“I think that sets the tone for everybody to be more relaxed and be more natural in their home environment,” she adds.
One of the challenges of working from home is finding a balance between professional and personal life. This will come naturally to some people. But for others who find it easier to ‘get into the zone’ in the office, bringing work home can be a nightmare.
Lim emphasizes the importance of encouraging workers to practice self-care, whether it’s through exercise, getting enough sleep, eating well, or finding a hobby. Even without COVID-19, these steps will go a long way towards helping employees achieve work-life balance.
“I feel that we have to make work-life balance happen in this current world,” explains Lim. “It means we set our own boundaries, we set our own timing. Log off at certain times of the day so you have time to rest. When you log back on again you’ll find that you’re more alert and better able to return to your tasks.”
Mental wellness will be a permanent fixture in companies
Even as Singapore slowly eases ‘circuit breaker’ measures, precautionary remote working will likely continue over the next few months and possibly into 2021. While business leaders worry about maintaining normal operations in the here and now of the pandemic, they’ll also have to deal with the looming mental health crisis brought about by global quarantines and the stressful transition to working from home.
If anything, this is a good time for employers to address the mental health needs of their workforce. This way, when the economy returns in full force—and one day, it will—firms can not only make remote work easier, but also build a culture that promotes personal well-being.
LIT DISCOvery 2020 is a virtual symposium organised by Young NTUC. It was attended by over 3,000 participants and featured several career profiling and exploration activities to help youths and young working adults in their career navigation.