SINGAPORE: Since circuit breaker measures were implemented in Singapore on Apr 7, many more people have been working from home. Despite the time savings, some have found this arrangement a bane rather than a boon.
Telecommuting, or working from home, can lead to working longer hours remotely with little breaks and social isolation, especially when there is lack of support from bosses and organisations.
As a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, I’ve seen first-hand how some struggle to draw the line between work and home.
Some of my clients find themselves working more than 50 hours a week, which exceeds the 48 hour cap of the Ministry of Manpower’s Employment Act. They also work with little to no interaction with other people.
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Overworking and isolation cause increased stress, which could fuel physical problems such as musculoskeletal and metabolic issues, as well as mental health problems such as loneliness and depression.
One of my clients felt compelled to work longer hours as she had many meetings and calls to attend to until the evening. The fear of having things accumulate, letting her supervisor and herself down and failing to meet deadlines made it difficult for her to stop, causing her to be exhausted and depressed.
When she reached breaking point, she turned to me for help.
That episode made me realise that while we have focused on taking care of our physical health this coronavirus outbreak, we may have neglected our mental well-being.
1. STAY CONNECTED
Many of my clients have shared how distraught they are at the loss of face-to-face interactions in their lives, since all social activities have grounded to a halt.
I cannot emphasise how critical it is to stay connected during this period. Don’t just use technology for work – use it to keep in touch with friends and family, whether through voice calls, video conferencing, instant messaging or emails.
After all, we are social creatures who benefit from love, attention, support and comfort. A reduction in social connections can be disorienting, even destabilising.
Seeking your loved ones out and maintaining your relationships with them through virtual activities are some ways you can continue to bond. How about throwing an online karaoke video party?
In fact, my colleagues and I try to organise weekly lunch meetings via video calls while working from home.
If you live alone, you can join local online groups through Facebook or Instagram to interact with your neighbours. Who knows what new joys you might discover? Some people have learnt of new deals and tried new restaurants based on their neighbours’ recommendations.
This is a great way to make new friends and to support local businesses.
2. MANAGE CHANGES WITH KINDNESS
During this period of change, try to also be kind to one another.
One of my clients shared that she was required to report to her manager several times a day via video calls to give updates on her work progress. She found that immensely stressful and anxiety-inducing.
Together, we worked on communicating her needs to her manager. Thankfully, her manager understood the struggles of working remotely, had an open mind and was more flexible on deliverables, thus building mutual trust.
Understanding what your real challenges are and communicating clearly can help you and your co-workers get through work and foster a stronger relationship despite the physical distance.
For all you know, many in your team face the same challenges yet do not speak up. Do not be afraid to voice what works for you and establish boundaries that enable you to function well from home.
For supervisors, you will inevitably be concerned about staff performance but try to nurture a concern first for their well-being. Understanding where your subordinates are coming from, what constraints they face and how they can work more effectively, might inform new win-win arrangements.
Some of the happiest, most engaged teams are also the most productive.
3. FOCUS ON WHAT’S WITHIN YOUR CONTROL
The uncertainty of the situation has hit a number of my clients.
“How long it will last? Should I join everyone else in panic buying? Will I have enough food? Will I get the virus? Will I even have my job? Will I have enough money to survive? What will happen to my family?”
It is common to have these worries. But instead of dwelling on them, learn to accept things that aren’t within your control, and focus on the things that are: Reading news from official outlets, buying what you need, adapting to new work conditions, saving wisely and finding out what resources are available for support.
While the uncertainty may seem unsettling initially, if you learn to live with the anxiety while continuing with practices and habits that bring you meaning, these feelings will reduce with time.
Some of my clients unwilling to avoid work feel guilty for increasing the load on their colleagues or neglecting their tasks.
An unhelpful thought that we often have is that caring for yourself and unplugging from work means you will definitely work less and leave others to pick up the slack. But life is rarely that binary.
Just think about all those airline videos that instruct people to wear their own oxygen masks before attending to others. You must take care of yourself first before helping others.
If you are unwell and overextend yourself, you will also slow down the whole team.
Instead, take this chance to care for yourself and practise social responsibility by taking a break. Once you have recuperated, you can return to action.
Having a healthy lifestyle – eating well, sleeping enough, exercising and engaging in leisure activities – is also part of self-care. Use this opportunity to focus on looking within yourself through reading or meditating.
5. BE GRATEFUL
Finding reasons to be grateful can contribute to our mental health during this period.
I am grateful for the way Singapore has handled the outbreak – with its dissemination of clear information on accessible channels, contact tracing, the efficient restocking of supermarket goods and economic measures to support households and businesses.
On a personal level, I am also thankful for the opportunity to work from home. Even though my husband and I have been together for more than a decade, I have never seen him at work.
Through this experience, I have seen a different side of him – his ability to strategise, command and be assertive. This has made me appreciate and understand him more.
Finding new ways to appreciate the people you live with will deepen your relationship and reduce conflict.
A FINAL WORD OF ADVICE
If things get tough, you can reach out and seek help. You do not need to face these concerns alone.
The recently launched National Care Hotline offers emotional support to those worried about COVID-19. It is manned by over 300 trained workers from over 50 agencies and organisations.
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As telecommuting becomes the new normal, remember to care of yourself and look out for your colleagues so that you can navigate these changes with compassion and empathy.
Prioritising our mental well-being will help us make the most out of working from home.
Jeanette Lim is a Clinical Psychologist at the Department of Psychology, Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
You can reach the 24/7 National Care Hotline at 6202 6868.