Growing focus on mental health at workplace as Covid-19 pandemic takes toll

SINGAPORE – More employers in the public and private sectors are placing greater importance on protecting the mental health of workers under pressure in a pandemic that has lasted for nearly two years.

While Covid-19 has made work more flexible for some, counselling services said the pandemic has taken a mental toll on many employees in Singapore as they grapple with longer working hours, social isolation and job insecurity.

Mr Paul Francis Chong, 37, who is an operations director at global integrated facilities management company Sodexo, is among those in Singapore who are feeling the impact of work-from-home arrangements.

“I used to have more personal space when I commuted to work daily. The extended period of social isolation has also had a negative impact on my social activities. These are fundamental human needs, and I do miss interacting face to face with my friends and colleagues.”

A survey by software firm Oracle found that nearly seven in 10 residents in Singapore said this year has been the most stressful one at work, with more than half struggling more with their mental health at work this year than last year.

Still, about 77 per cent of more than 1,000 respondents from sectors including manufacturing, business and logistics felt their companies were more concerned about their mental health now than before the pandemic.

The civil service, which is Singapore’s largest employer, has launched a digital portal called Mindline At Work. It features mental health resources such as tips on revealing a mental condition to employers and dealing with the first 100 days in a new job.

The website is also equipped with a clinically validated well-being self-assessment tool. Since its pilot launch in September, the portal has had over 17,700 users.

The civil service, in a statement, said it has also encouraged supervisors to set clear expectations for officers on work availability and hours, and check in with them regularly.

In the private sector, at least four companies have beefed up mental health support since the start of the pandemic. Sodexo, for instance, has rolled out 12 mental wellness webinars since July last year.

Its human resources director for the Asia-Pacific Soorya Themudu said these sessions help employees tackle the challenges of adapting to disruptions wrought by the pandemic by improving sleep quality and developing emotional intelligence. “Having a healthy workforce increases productivity, decreases absenteeism and total medical costs.”

Ms Themudu said the firm conducts an annual survey to check on employees’ well-being.

Counselling agencies said more firms are offering counselling services outside the office as a perk through the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which offers confidential counselling to help workers deal with personal and work-based issues.

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The Singapore Anglican Community Services said it has seen more than 50 firms sign up for the EAP programme since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

The Singapore Counselling Centre (SCC) reported a spike in the number of EAP clients seeking help, with a twofold increase in the past two years compared with 2019.

Similarly, the Counselling and Care Centre said the number of client organisations it provided services to more than doubled from 10 in 2017 to 24 last year.

Counselling agencies lauded efforts to address employee mental health but also urged employers to make changes to ease workloads and build support systems.

A Counselling and Care Centre spokesman said: “Given that the pandemic has curtailed people’s travel plans and employees are home although they are on leave, there has been a gradual shift in the work culture. Employees now feel obliged to respond to work demands even when they are taking their annual vacation leave.”

She added that businesses can try to ensure that employees who are on leave are able to take a break from work demands and are not activated for duty, where possible.

Mr Vincent Budihardjo, head of integrated employment services and senior services at Singapore Anglican Community Services, said bosses also need to recognise the challenges of working from home, and introduce practices that can bolster workplace relationships.

For example, firms can organise regular Zoom team-bonding sessions, where employees can catch up with one another over dessert paid for by the firm.

The bottom line that employers must recognise is that neglecting mental well-being will be detrimental to productivity, said counselling agencies.

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SCC founder John Shepherd Lim said it is not uncommon for people facing burnout or chronic stress to experience a drop in work productivity and engagement, which will directly impact organisational outcomes and performance.

He said it would be “a great waste to the company in the long run” if talented workers are overworked and leave.

“Organisations will also then have to spend on hiring new employees, who will then take time to learn the ropes, affecting the workflow and overall team productivity if turnover rates are high.”

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