As we enter 2021, moving into Phase 3 of Singapore’s reopening, we are beginning to see some form of normalcy back in our lives.
However, while more businesses are reopening and with more employees returning to the workplace, the way we live and work is vastly different than before.
Employees who work from home often find themselves working around the clock to signal their commitment and productivity. The resultant blurring of boundaries between work and home results in work stress and fatigue.
According to a Qualtrics study in Singapore in April 2020, 26 per cent of employees surveyed reported a decrease in mental health.
Another Workplace Resilience survey conducted in May and June 2020 found that those working from home can be more stressed than those working on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the juggling of multiple domestic responsibilities.
With these changes and challenges, how can employees maintain healthy boundaries between work and home, and improve their mental wellness in order to stay productive at work?
And how can leaders and business owners engage and communicate effectively with staff – and colleagues with each other – while adhering to safe distancing measures?
Mental wellness in the new workplace normal
On Jan 13, a panel of experts and business leaders addressed these questions of adapting to the new normal in the workplace for Phase 3.
Dr John Wong Chee Meng, professor in mental health and neuroscience at NUS’ Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine said: “The key issue here is how do we allow the individual to recognise their own emotions when they are going through major adjustments to routines which may be stressful.”
He was one of the experts at the panel discussion, moderated by Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary Dr William Wan. Other panelists were founder and CEO of FLY Entertainment Irene Ang, entrepreneur and professional speaker Su-Yen Wong and Nabiilah Hanifah, a mental health counsellor at Club HEAL.
Firstly, how can a person tell if they are experiencing stress?
Dr Wong said: “Stress is a natural phenomenon. It’s not something adverse if we are able to ride through the storm and come out stronger and more resilient.”
According to Dr Wong, the three common emotional symptoms of stress are anxiety, irritability and sadness. Physically, one might also experience sleeplessness, headaches and an increase in blood pressure.
While some stress is normal, inability to cope with that can lead to depression.
Nabiilah said that many of her young clients are not able to eat or sleep because of stress triggers relating to school, work and relationships with their peers.
So how can we tell when a colleague is stressed out, especially when we can’t meet face-to-face while WFH?
Irene emphasises the importance of both non-verbal gestures and words.
“For instance, be mindful when a particular staff member who used to be very cheerful and engaged back in the office suddenly becomes very quiet. As a leader or manager, it is important to acquire skills to be more sensitive to people,” Irene said.
“Over Zoom meetings, I’ve detected certain behavioral signs and I would drop a text (to the person) or make a phone call right after that to say ‘hey, you look stressed, are you ok?’”
Su-Yen suggested that leaders can reach out to their team members one-on-one, as some people may not be comfortable speaking up about their problems in a group setting.
While bosses should look out for team members, the panelists agreed that leaders need to be kind to themselves too.
Keeping businesses alive
In the current economic climate, business leaders and owners are experiencing immense pressures to keep their companies afloat, and their workers employed while at the same time caring for their physical and mental welfare.
“The problem is too big for any one person to solve.” Su-Yen said. “So how do you bring the team together and leverage the team’s ideas to talk about survival and moving forward?”
“While everyone is naturally concerned about their jobs, we can help people participate in being solution providers and that gives people a lot more agency as well, because they feel they have control and a voice.”
Dr Wong says that many of his healthcare colleagues are on the Covid-19 frontline and that in any crisis, leadership plays an important role to help the individual cope better.
He said: “At the same time the institution ensures that there are enough resources to keep the service going – to make sure that as a community and as a country, we can assure people of the care they and their families need.”
For Irene, who works in the entertainment industry, the circuit breaker was a tough period as it saw the cancellation of almost all shows and events.
She added that her business managed to survive because she applied for various government grants. She also shared this information with other industry partners.
“If you only think for yourself, your whole industry will fail,” Irene said.
Adapting to an online work presence
To bring the social element into an online environment, businesses were forced to find creative ways to engage workers.
Su-Yen explained: “The thing about Zoom meetings is that it is transactional. You set up a meeting for a particular purpose and when you’re done with that purpose, that’s it. Whereas in an office face-to-face environment, you have opportunities to bump into each other in the pantry or hallways…”
Nabiilah said that while physical staff retreats could no longer take place, her team organised games and competitions on Zoom to inject an element of fun into WFH.
Irene alternated FLY team meetings with virtual coffee sessions where staff could talk about anything they wanted – from the latest K-pop trends to whatever they are currently bingeing on Netflix!
For Dr Wong, his team did a hybrid virtual and physical gathering where they were split into two groups in two seminar rooms for team-bonding activities.
Relooking work-life balance
So how can companies better support their staff transitioning from WFH to back to the office, or some hybrid of the two?
Nabillah said that it is important to understand we all have different ways of coping with stress. Active listening helps us to understand why there is work anxiety, and the use of an accountability buddy promotes a personal touch in an otherwise isolated work environment.
Dr Wong added: “Empathy allows us to be more aware and sensitive to people around us.”
He said that there are people who are afraid of returning to work because they fear the potential risks of contracting Covid-19.
“Supervisors could take a more understanding view to allow staff to travel at off-peak period (to reduce risks).”
It was reported in The Straits Times in May that 9 in 10 Singaporeans want to continue working from home in some capacity.
Su-Yen said that employers need to be mindful that employees are not just workers but people, and the key is how to strike the right balance with flexibility.
This includes supporting staff with the right infrastructure and ergonomics at home, and being more empathetic to each staff’s family situation.
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It is perhaps a good time in this pandemic to relook work-life balance and for companies to calibrate their own arrangement that is conducive to maintain optimal functional and well-being, Dr Wong said.
Ultimately, in order to move forward and overcome the challenges of Covid-19, leaders need to walk the talk and lead with kindness and empathy.
Employees will reciprocate by delivering on their tasks, and even going the extra mile to achieve better results.
“In a way we are learning to trust each other,” Dr Wan said.
“Productivity is more than just being in a place. When you are committed to your work, you can work and be productive anywhere even if your bosses are not watching you.”