The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted not only the economy, but daily life. Work-from-home orders and travel bans are increasingly supplemented by social distancing measures and even lockdowns, with people strongly discouraged or even outright ordered to stay away from each other. But humans are social animals, and isolation, even for the sake of one’s physical health, will inevitably have some impact on the psyche.
People Matters asked practicing clinical psychologist Dr Shawn Lee, who is also the head of science at Malaysian digital healthcare startup Naluri Life, how the coming weeks of remote work may affect people, what employers can do about it, and how digital healthcare might play a role. Here are some of his thoughts.
What are the most likely psychological issues that people might encounter under the circumstances of social distancing, quarantine/self-isolation, and remote work?
This depends on how much the imposed changes deviate from the person’s usual routine. In our current society, work arrangements are diverse. Some individuals may already be accustomed to distancing themselves and working remotely, while others may find the change difficult to adapt. For individuals who are not used to being in isolation, the sense of depression, loneliness, and uncertainty are likely to occur.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has caught us by surprise due to its highly contagious nature and aggressive spread worldwide. Many countries and societies simply aren’t prepared for a crisis of such a scale.
What support systems can employers put in place to help spot and alleviate such issues?
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), an organization dedicated to strengthening humanitarian assistance, has these guidelines for employers and individuals in leadership positions:
Foster an environment that encourages employees to express if their mental wellbeing is affected
Ensure good quality communication and accurate information updates in order to mitigate uncertainty and increase the sense of control
Allow a reasonable time for rest, recuperation, and self-care activities
Provide a brief and regular platform for employees to express their concerns and ask questions, without breaking confidentiality
Pay attention to employees who are experiencing difficulties in their personal life and emotional challenges, or those who are lacking in social support
How much of a role can telemedicine generally play for people who are practising social distancing or under a quarantine order?
Telemedicine, more broadly known as digital healthcare, was designed specifically to close the gap of “distance” in healthcare. Digital healthcare was supposed to enable good quality care and provide assurance during times of movement control and lockdown, so moving forward, the role that digital healthcare can play is vital.
As previously alluded to, this crisis struck us before we had the time to prepare ourselves. At the moment, the digital healthcare industry has yet to reach the level of maturity and popularity where the general public can feel safe and reassured with regards to their healthcare needs in times of crisis. Having said that, the experience and learning that is COVID-19 will definitely serve as a catalyst for growth for the industry.
Would digital healthcare help with the psychological issues that people may encounter while observing social distancing?
The quality of help can only be as good as the professional that is providing it. Telemedicine is a way of delivering care, and it is by no means an alternative form of care. Through digital means, trained and competent mental health professionals can overcome the barrier of “distance” to deliver the services that they are already providing in a face-to-face context. However, in times where distance is the main obstacle to mental healthcare, telemedicine is a godsend.
Might AI have a role in mental healthcare during this period?
To my knowledge, there is no AI in existence that is capable of providing human-like responses that could appropriately and effectively guide individuals through their psychological and emotional challenges. I personally believe that when the day we have an AI that is capable of replacing human therapists, mankind will have another crisis to worry about. At the moment, no AI can replace the support and care provided by a real human. However, AI can assist human therapists by helping us prioritize and minimize our effort and resources so that we can achieve similar or better outcomes with higher efficiency.
What should people be mindful of when utilizing telemedicine?
The key factor to look out for is really the team and people who are running the service, rather than telemedicine per se. Effective healthcare requires collaboration between the clinicians and patients, and this is no different in digital healthcare. Good healthcare service is where the clinicians practice professionally and responsibly, and the patients cooperate actively and openly. Once more, digital healthcare is a way of delivering healthcare services, it is by no means a different form of healthcare.