2020 has been a year of massive upheaval. The pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill and thrown unforeseen challenges at us. COVID-19 may be a physical illness, but it has also hit mental health hard. As we observed World Mental Health Day on October 10, it served as an opportune time to look back, assess the mental health impact of the coronavirus, and prepare for the time to come. According to the World Health Organisation, the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in over 90 percent of the countries surveyed. It has also given rise to a new wave of mental health battles for people around the world including Singapore.
Uncertainty, joblessness, and the fear of the pandemic has impacted the local workforce, raising their stress levels. That is not all. Longer work hours due to the overlapping of personal and professional lives, a change in work style, and lack of social interactions, have further taken a toll. Current work-from-home arrangements have blurred the lines between work hours and personal time, making it more important than ever for us to examine how to manage work-life balance. The balancing act by working parents as they try to juggle their job and home-based learning for their children is another major stressor. A global Qualtrics survey revealed that more than 44 percent of those surveyed have experienced a decline in their mental health due to the new workstyles.
Recognising the gravity of this situation, the Singapore government will soon be issuing an advisory to help employers improve their staff’s mental well-being, a much-needed step. It will highlight notable initiatives for companies to follow, such as providing access to anonymized external counseling services and training supervisors to identify symptoms of mental health issues early.
With mental health under the national spotlight, we can expect an amplified effort from the corporates in securing their workers’ mental well-being. Addressing mental health needs to extend beyond it being a prerogative of social services and the government. The pandemic has induced anxiety and lowered the morale of people at large and organizations can play a vital role in helping them cope with the challenges that this change has bought with it.
Most employees do not know what it is like to speak to a mental health professional, and they often hesitate to do so. They may also fear repercussions or and a lack of anonymity. This is where employers and partner wellness organizations can step in to alleviate such fears by proactively organizing awareness campaigns as well as leveraging mental health champions.
More companies have adopted an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) as a part of their welfare benefits. This generally includes individual counseling sessions that employees can claim for, flexible work hours, and other services such as anonymous, virtual mental health workshops. Increasingly more employees are openly sharing their personal mental health journeys and championing the cause within organizations. This helps to also eliminate a certain amount of stigma that is residual when it comes to talking about mental health.
Apart from mental health helplines and support groups, newer ways are emerging for employers to help their workers improve their mental health. Digital strategies and tools including AI-powered interactive apps are setting the course for the future. Some upcoming mental health apps and programs incorporate AI that monitors the mood of the person through soundbites or responses and tracks any signs of mental distress. Depending on the stress level, the app can provide recommendations or clear action items to the user to destress or seek help. These could be stressbuster podcast links, mindfulness activities, helplines, therapist contacts, among others. Adoption of such technologies can help improve mental health and employee engagement contributing to their overall well-being and productivity, all of which is an imperative for sustainable growth.
Policies and tools aside, what is critical is to develop the right culture of awareness and support. Monitoring the real-time sentiments of employees and analytics can also help employers shape workplace culture in the long run. Mental fitness needs to be looked at just as physical fitness. Just as achieving 10,000 steps in a day has become the physical fitness mantra, mental fitness goals, too, need to be broken down into simple, doable steps. Workplaces can help propagate this idea and sculpt a new wholesome fitness culture coupled with the right education to build a support system within the organization.
A Mercer study on 2020 Global Talent Trends, released earlier this year, reveals that a heartening 58 percent of organizations are redesigning to become more people-centric. Yet only 27 percent of executives believe that employee experience will yield a business return. But this is an area that should not be ignored, as employees whose company is focused on employee health and well-being are four times more likely to be energized.
Society and businesses must recognise the potential mental health crisis, coming close on the heels of the economic fallout from COVID-19. In such times of uncertainty, balancing economics and empathy is a must, potentially offering leaders an opportunity to revamp their business values to focus equally on both.