Singapore’s stressed workers highlight the psychological distress from COVID
SINGAPORE – Well fed up with his job, Singaporean attorney Nick Ng resigned from a financial services firm in March with no alternative employment prospect.
For the 37-year-old, teleworking conditions had become unbearable in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, as the company essentially expected its legal department to be available around the clock.
“Coupled with today’s technology that enables instant messaging, it has blurred the work-life balance so much that I was afraid of getting notifications on my phone all the time,” he recalls. Amid the frequent pings, he said he had severe palpitations and shortness of breath and ended up consulting both a doctor and a psychologist.
The feeling of being “always on” is a pandemic experience that many in Asia and around the world can relate to. Some countries are also facing serious health and economic emergencies, from the alarming collapse in Indonesian hospital care to financially weak Malaysians waving white flags to ask for help.
However, recent studies suggest that workers in Singapore – often viewed as an example of largely successful COVID-19 containment – are taking a relatively heavy mental and emotional toll. Regardless of the location, experts warn the personal burden of the relentless pandemic should not be overlooked.
A survey conducted by Australian payroll software company Employment Hero found that Singapore workers are the least satisfied of the five markets.
Singapore shared the dubious honor of having the most miserable workers with the UK, with 48% in both countries saying they are dissatisfied with their jobs and would not recommend their companies as employers.
The study, which was conducted from March to May to assess the effects of COVID-19 on workers and employers, included more than 3,000 workers in the two countries as well as Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.
Malaysia’s dissatisfaction rate was 42%, New Zealand 41% and Australia 40%.
This year, Singapore has moved back and forth on restrictions that restrict social and workplace interactions – sometimes the rules to combat clusters of infections have been tightened again. While virus numbers are well below those of other Southeast Asian countries, concerns about imported cases of the more contagious Delta variant have kept the city-state in suspense.
“Financial pressures, ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks and the uncertainty of lockdowns are adding to the stress levels of the Singaporean workforce,” noted Ben Thompson, Co-Founder and CEO of Employment Hero.
“When we asked Singaporeans what they would need to reduce their stress levels and feel happier, the majority – 69% – said they wanted a better work-life balance, whether through flexible working hours or remote working options and work-life integration, “he added.
Another study highlighted welfare concerns not only in Singapore but in several other Asian commercial centers as well.
Cigna, a US health services company, conducted a mental wellbeing survey of over 18,000 respondents in various markets in April. On an index that measures perceptions of health and wellbeing based on social activity, family life and work, Singapore fell below the global benchmark of 61.3 with a score of 59.2.
Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong lagged behind Singapore in the 1950s. In contrast, China scored 65.9, Indonesia 63.8, and Thailand 62.5. India also got a high score at 73.2, although Cigna noted that research preceded serious COVID-19 resurrections in some cases.
Globally, 72% of respondents rated mental health as a very important influence on their personal health and wellbeing, followed by physical health at 70%.
“The pandemic has increased awareness of mental health issues as more people seek help,” said Dawn Soo, Regional Medical Officer for the Asia-Pacific region at Cigna International Markets.
Burnout and even “death from overwork” were a big topic long before the coronavirus hit. Attitudes towards mental health and the availability of assistance also vary widely from country to country. But the pandemic has led to growing recognition worldwide that it is a critical public health factor, perhaps especially in times of crisis.
At the World Health Assembly in May, delegates approved a comprehensive mental health action plan 2013-2030, the World Health Organization said on its website. “For the first time, the plan includes an indicator of readiness to provide mental and psychosocial support in emergencies.”
WHO said member states are encouraged to “develop and strengthen comprehensive mental health services and mental health support as part of universal health care, with a particular focus on improving understanding and acceptance of mental illness, vulnerable populations and the use of innovative technologies” .
In the case of Singapore, Cigna’s Soo suggested that some of the burden could also fall on individuals in order to build their own resilience.
“A key challenge Singaporeans continue to face is the inadequate prevention work that should be carried out alongside efforts to de-stigmatize mental health problems,” she said. “Focusing on improving wellbeing will be critical if we are to emerge stronger from this pandemic as we learn to take better care of ourselves and deal with stress better than before.”
She recommended trying to build supportive social circles, responding, and offering help when friends or coworkers were in need.
In the workplace, she said bosses should try to give workers more flexibility in order to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic. She said this should include awareness of the need for family time, which can help create a more positive attitude and reduce stress levels.
“Employers should be aware of this trend and look for ways to better support their employees, e.g.
For professionals like Ng – who started a new position as legal advisor for a medical services company in May – the hope is that bosses will better understand the pressures of work during a pandemic.
“An employee’s physical, mental, and emotional health is far more important than anything right now,” said Ng. “Employees don’t work from home – they are at home trying to work in a crisis.”