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Singapore's stressed workers highlight COVID mental health strain

Surveys hint at hidden toll in city-state and other Asian economies

Singapore's business district: Burnout was a major issue in Asia before COVID-19, but the pandemic has brought added pressures.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Fed up with his job, Singaporean lawyer Nick Ng resigned from a financial services company in March without alternative employment lined up.

For the 37-year-old, teleworking conditions under the COVID-19 crisis had become unbearable, since the company essentially expected its legal team to be available round the clock.

"Coupled with today's technology allowing for instant messaging, this blurred the work-life balance to a point where I dreaded receiving constant notifications on my mobile," he recalled. Amid the frequent pings, he said he experienced severe heart palpitations and breathlessness, and ended up consulting both a doctor and a psychologist.

Feeling "always on" is a pandemic experience many in Asia and around the world can relate to. Some countries are also confronting serious health and economic emergencies, from the alarming collapse of Indonesian hospital services to cash-strapped Malaysians pleading for help with white flags.

But recent studies suggest workers in Singapore -- often held up as an example of largely successful COVID-19 containment -- are taking a relatively heavy mental and emotional toll. Regardless of location, experts warn the personal strain of the relentless pandemic should not be overlooked.

One survey, conducted by Australian payroll software company Employment Hero, found the Singaporean workforce to be the unhappiest among five markets.

Singapore tied with Britain for the dubious honor of having the most miserable workers, with 48% in both countries saying they were unhappy in their jobs and would not recommend their companies as places to work.

The study, conducted from March to May to gauge the impact of COVID-19 on employees and employers, covered more than 3,000 employees in the two countries as well as Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

Malaysia's unhappiness ratio was 42%, while New Zealand's was 41% and Australia's was 40%.

This year, Singapore has moved back and forth on restrictions limiting social and workplace interactions -- at times re-tightening rules to combat infection clusters. While its virus numbers are far below those seen in some other Southeast Asian countries, concerns about imported cases of the more contagious delta variant have kept the city-state on edge.

"The financial pressures, continued COVID-19 outbreaks, and the uncertainty of lockdowns are contributors to increased stress levels among the Singaporean workforce," observed Ben Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Employment Hero.

"When we asked Singaporeans what they would need to help reduce their stress levels and feel happier, the majority -- 69% -- said they want better work-life balance, whether this is flexible working hours, or options for remote-working and work-life integration," he added.

Another study highlighted concerns about well-being not only in Singapore but also several other centers of Asian commerce.

Cigna, a U.S. health services company, in April conducted a mental wellness survey of over 18,000 respondents across different markets. On an index measuring perceptions of health and well-being 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 were behind Singapore in the 50s. In contrast, China scored 65.9, Indonesia 63.8 and Thailand 62.5. India also scored highly, at 73.2, though Cigna noted that in some cases, the research predated serious COVID-19 resurgences.

Globally, 72% of respondents rated mental health as a very important influence on their personal health and well-being, followed by physical health at 70%.

"The pandemic has led to a greater awareness of mental health issues with increasing numbers of people seeking help," said Dawn Soo, regional medical officer for the Asia-Pacific at Cigna International Markets.

Across Asia, burnout and even "death by overwork" were major issues long before the coronavirus arrived. Attitudes toward mental health and the availability of help also differ widely from country to country. But the pandemic has brought increased global recognition that it is a crucial public health factor, perhaps especially during crises.

At the World Health Assembly in May, delegates endorsed 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 on preparedness for providing mental health and psychosocial support during emergencies."

The WHO said member states are encouraged to "develop and strengthen comprehensive mental health services and psychosocial support as part of universal health coverage, with a particular focus on improving understanding and acceptance of mental health conditions, vulnerable populations, and use of innovative technologies."

In the case of Singapore, Cigna's Soo suggested some of the burden may also fall on individuals to build their own resilience.

"One key challenge that Singaporeans continue to face is the insufficient preventive work that should be done alongside efforts to destigmatize mental health issues," she said. "Focusing on improving wellness will be critical if we want to emerge from this pandemic stronger together, as we will learn how to take better care of ourselves and manage stress better than before."

She recommended trying to build supportive social circles, reacting and offering help when friends or colleagues appear to be in distress.

At the workplace, she said bosses should look into giving workers greater flexibility to alleviate the pandemic's negative fallout. She said this should include awareness of the need for family time, which can contribute to a more positive outlook and decrease stress levels.

"Employers should note this trend and explore ways to better support their staff, such as enabling people to spend quality time with their loved ones, rather than simply focusing on work outcomes," Soo said.

For professionals like Ng -- who landed a new job as legal counsel for a medical services company in May -- the hope is that bosses will be more understanding of the pressures of working during a pandemic.

"An employee's physical, mental and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now," Ng said. "Employees are not working from home -- they are at home trying to work in a crisis."

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