The Big Read: Amid the crisis of a generation, losing one’s job takes a heavy emotional and mental toll
Psychologists and social workers spoken to said they are seeing more distressed individuals seeking help due to retrenchment or imminent job loss.
SINGAPORE: For seven years, Ms Sook Tan was living the life she had long sought: A stint in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, followed by the neon lights of Japan’s Tokyo and finally the buzz of cosmopolitan Hong Kong where she worked as a business coordinator for a coworking operator.
But around February, the 32-year-old made plans to return to Singapore after her 63-year-old mother, who was diagnosed with lupus around mid-2019, experienced a flare-up of the autoimmune disease.
As the only child of a single-parent family, Ms Tan used to fly back regularly to accompany her mother for her medical appointments. But with the older woman’s condition worsening, Ms Tan put on hold her dreams of continuing to live and work abroad to take care of her mother.
Rather than letting her resign, Ms Tan said her employers were kind enough to open a position for her in Singapore, and she was back home in March with her mother.
It seemed like an ideal arrangement, but Singapore, like much of the world, was just beginning its tussle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aside from being a global health crisis that has infected more than 29.7 million people and caused at least 937,000 fatalities to date, the coronavirus also has had a devastating effect on economies worldwide and Ms Tan’s company was not spared.
The writing was on the wall, with her company’s five international branches being shut one after another. In August, Ms Tan was told she was being laid off from the company’s Singapore headquarters.
Ms Tan took the retrenchment in her stride; bolstered by her overseas experience, she felt assured that she would quickly land a new job.
What she was not counting on was competing against thousands of other Singaporeans who had been similarly laid off as the Republic’s COVID-19-battered economy entered its worst recession since independence.
According to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) latest labour market report, a total of 11,350 workers were laid off for the first half of 2020. This is higher than that seen during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, when there were 10,120 job cuts in the first half of 2003, but lower than other past recessionary peaks, MOM said.
Ms Tan said her confidence took a hit as it shattered the image she had of herself. “Friends will be supportive and say ‘Your CV (curriculum vitae) is fine, you are wonderful’.”
But the reality is, headhunters she spoke to rarely got back to her despite saying how interesting her profile is.
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With little savings, she also found herself in the unusual position of basing all her decisions around her finances — something she did not do previously.
“There were days where I woke up just worried about what’s going to happen,” said Ms Tan, who started working when she was 20 with few breaks in between. “The stress of not having a job was very new to me.”
Since she lost her job, she has been going through an emotional rollercoaster. There are days when she is kind to herself, but far more days when she wallows in self-doubt.
“There is always a lot of self-doubt going on in my head,” she said. “I might think that I'm trying my best, but is that the actual best or just what I think is best?”
Ms Tan is not alone in feeling that the loss of a livelihood has taken a toll on her mental health.
Psychologists and social workers spoken to said they are seeing more distressed individuals seeking help due to retrenchment or imminent job loss.
SITUATION WORSENED BY COVID-19 UNCERTAINTY
Mr Praveen Nair, a psychologist at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, said there is a psychological theory that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the mental health of the retrenched.
“Anything that reminds people of their mortality or death will cause anxiety,” he said.
“Imagine if a person is retrenched, they're already feeling anxiety. At the same time, you're surrounded by a global pandemic that reinforces that economies are crashing, jobs are less, and that you could even die.
“So you can imagine how that would heighten any existing levels of anxiety.”
Dr Joel Yang, a clinical psychologist at Mind What Matters, noted that social distancing restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 — especially those in place during the circuit breaker — have inadvertently impaired the social support that one would normally receive.
"While online alternatives to seeking professional and social support exist, many do not feel as comfortable with such tools and by default would remain isolated," he said.
TODAY reported earlier this week that calls to Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), a non-profit suicide prevention centre, went up by 36 per cent during the circuit breaker period compared to the same period last year.
A total of 10,671 calls were made between April and June, compared with 7,844 calls made in that period in 2019. That was the circuit breaker period when Singapore imposed stay-home curbs and shut down most activities to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, with restrictions lifted at the start of June.
Separately, SOS chief executive Gasper Tan said from March to August, it has received an average of 144 calls per month with issues pertaining to job loss or unemployment — a slight increase from the average of 141 over the same period last year.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said the National Care Hotline had managed over 27,900 calls as of Aug 21. Most of the callers were adults above 21, and their top concerns pertained to mental health, marital and family disputes.
“Many needed emotional support,” said an MSF spokesperson.
The hotline was set up in April to provide psychological and emotional support to people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Audrey Chin, a volunteer duty care officer with the hotline, said most callers do not articulate their emotions when they call. Instead, they enquire about financial schemes available.
“In Asian culture, generally people are not as articulate about their emotions as compared to Western culture,” said Ms Chin, who is also an associate psychologist with MSF.
She said that when the volunteers delve deeper during their conversations, they discover that the callers have been retrenched and are concerned about being able to provide for their families.
She added that it is quite common for these callers to reveal that being put in such a situation has caused a lot of anxiety. “Sometimes (they say), ‘I feel very depressed and I feel like a failure’,” she said.
Ms Lydia Tan, the principal social worker for voluntary welfare organisation Care Corner, said regardless of circumstances, retrenchment can have a negative psychological impact on any person.
However, with the national and global economies depressed by COVID-19, she said it makes it harder for retrenched people to predict when or how they can get employment.
“The challenges of being retrenched during COVID-19 are amplified due to the uncertainties, limitations and restrictions which directly or indirectly perpetuate isolation and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” she added.
To get through this difficult phase, a different type of resilience is needed, she pointed out.
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Many of her clients who have struggled with financial situations for a long time are very familiar with the resources available for them, she noted.
“It is this new poor, who are not familiar with the resources that are available,” she said, referring to those who have just lost their jobs.
THE ANGUISH AND ANXIETY OF LOSING ONE’S JOB
For a 50-year-old permanent resident, he never expected to be retrenched as he was the only employee in the purchasing department of an aviation repair and overhaul company where he had worked for over five years.
The Filipino, who declined to be named, said despite having his pay reduced, he was eventually let go in early-August.
Among his co-workers who were retrenched was a man who had been with the company for 15 years.
“It puts you in a perspective that loyalty is nothing. You're just part of a statistical number within the company,” he said. He admitted to being “a bit bitter” with the situation as it was his second time being retrenched in his career.
He added: “The situation really sucks and while there is no point in dwelling on the past, it is a bit disheartening.”
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He described his financial situation as “good for now”, but said that if he were to remain jobless for another two or three months, it would be a problem for his family of five — three sons aged 12, 20 and 24, and his 45-year-old wife.
Adding that he has been having trouble sleeping, he said: “I think I might be depressed ... Without the support of my family (my mental health is) not going to be good … I would be drinking (to cope).”
Mr Wee Toon Hee, 59, has been similarly losing sleep over worries about his livelihood.
As a busker who does juggling acts and freelances as a tour guide on the side, he has been without income since March when tighter social-distancing measures were imposed by the authorities to limit the spread of the coronavirus. His 50-year-old wife, who also worked as a tour guide, is not bringing home the bacon either.
Together, the husband and wife had applied for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which provides eligible freelancers with three quarterly cash payouts of S$3,000 each to tide over the COVID-19 crisis.
But Mr Wee said that their applications have been in vain, despite appealing twice. This has been a point of stress and frustration for him as he worries about how to cope with the overheads for his family, which includes two boys, aged 14 and 17.
Mr Wee said being able to receive the SIRS payout would not help him totally, but it would be a great relief and he would not feel “so distressed”.
“We’ve saved for the rainy days, but little did we know that the rainy days would be (so) long,” said Mr Wee, adding that he is panicking over his family's finances. “My savings are actually at a very dangerous level now. As a matter of fact, I took a loan from my insurance policy just two weeks ago.”
Mr Wee did not look for an alternative source of income earlier, as he was still harbouring hope that the pandemic would end soon.
“Never in anybody's imagination that something could happen and bring the whole world down to its knees,” said Mr Wee, who is currently helping his wife with her home-based baking business.
He is now resigned to the fact that he will have to give up his passion for busking to look for another source of income.
“My chips are all down and I don’t have a choice,” said Mr Wee, though he concedes that it will not be easy for someone his age to find another job.
For former aerospace engineer Tang Meng Kit, the hunt for a new job has left him feeling anxious and aimless because “you’re just searching for something”.
“When you’re waiting, hoping for something … the application you sent a week ago, can feel like two months (ago),” he said.
The 33-year-old has a 17-month-old toddler and a 33-year-old wife who does casual work. He said that he is feeling scared as he is getting the keys to his matrimonial home next week, and is concerned about paying off the mortgage.
He added it has been frustrating when he gets told by potential employers that he is overqualified for a job. “How can someone way overqualified don’t qualify for the work?” he said.
As for Ms Sook Tan, she has taken on two temporary jobs in a bid to ensure that she can still provide her mother with the same level of care and comfort as before.
In the day, she does marketing support for an events production company under a two-month contract role that ends in mid-October. At night, she works as a waitress at a Spanish restaurant.
As she has been working every day for three weeks, she feels that she may be close to a burnout. Still, she tries to maintain a strong front for her mother, who has been asking her to take a break.
She has avoided sharing her problems with her friends since they may be going through their own set of challenges. “Sometimes it does eat me up inside,” she said.
Some social workers said job losses have also resulted in strained familial relationships and even thoughts of suicide.
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Care Corner’s Ms Lydia Tan said she encountered a young client who had lost her job in the tourism industry.
As the client could not find a related job, she accepted a call centre job working from home.
“However, it was challenging as she needed a quiet home environment but she lived with many family members,” Ms Tan said. “It created a lot of conflict in the family and it was stressful for her. She was depressed over her lower take-home pay and strained relationships with family.”
Ms Joyz Tan, a senior social worker at the Fei Yue Family Service Centre, said she and her colleagues have come across cases where thoughts of suicide were triggered by the loss of a job.
“Emotional health can be affected when we strongly associate our self-worth to our job or job security,” she said.
Ms Lydia Tan added that when an individual’s sense of self-worth is challenged, they may feel aggrieved at their inability to provide for the family, especially if they are the sole breadwinner.
She said: “This could result in feelings of high pressure and stress which may affect the marital and parental relationships. In the extreme case, it may result in family violence.”
Dr Yang said there is a high take-up rate for the counselling support under Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that his clinic provides for outgoing staff at some organisations.
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“COVID-19 has impacted individuals psychologically at work and we need to recognise that these effects will continue to linger and it is essential to be watchful over our colleagues and ourselves,” he added.
Dr Cherie Chan, president of Singapore Psychological Society (SPS), said that some telltale signs that someone’s mental health may be affected include increased anxiety, social withdrawal and isolation, and increased use of substances such as alcohol and drugs.
She said that individuals might also show increased expressions of anger and worry about providing for their family or themselves.
“This may lead to increased suicide risk should unemployment continue… unemployment and job loss often bring a great sense of hopelessness, uncertainty and perceived threats which studies have shown lead to greater risks of developing mental health problems,” she added.
HELPING ONESELF, OTHERS COPE WITH JOB LOSS
As many workers — especially older ones — tie their identity to their jobs, Mr Tony Leong, who also volunteers at the National Care Hotline, said that the loved ones or friends of individuals who have been retrenched should give them time to grief.
“The loss of a job is still a loss,” said Mr Leong, who is also the director of youth work at a charity organisation CampusImpact. “It is important to empathise and acknowledge this loss and recognise it is a difficult time for them and that their functioning and activities could be affected.”
Mr Nair, the psychologist, agreed that it is possible for people who have been retrenched to go through stages that are similar to bereavement.
“In essence, it may be as follows: Shock, anger, depression, guilt and acceptance. This trajectory, and its impact, needs to perhaps be understood first,” he said.
Mr Nair said there are two forms of coping strategies that could be used by individuals: emotion-focused coping (focusing on one’s own internal state) or problem-focused coping (finding a solution for an external issue).
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An example of being emotion-focused, he said, can be giving a pep talk to oneself or carrying out meditation or breathing exercises.
As for being problem-focused, it could just be asking for support or even creating a to-do list.
For those who have been retrenched, Mr Nair suggested:
- Taking time to find out what their real passion is, and preparing themselves for a new working life
-Volunteering in the community
- Taking on any job until something better arrives
- Looking out for opportunities to try things such as starting on a fitness regime, or a new business
- Setting aside time to actively look for a job
- Gaining knowledge in a topic of interest, or an area relevant to building a career
- Being mindful of one’s diet, as foods affect mood
Dr Yang said affected individuals should also try to recognise that what they are going through is “merely a moment of time in (their) life”, and they should try to shift focus on what they can do moving forward.
“In any crisis, there is opportunity, and you want to make a list of all the possibilities ahead of you,” he said.
“For many, they may have been in a job or career that was comfortable but not exciting or fulfilling. If not for our current situation, they may never have spent time to think of what truly matters for them.”
He added that affected individuals should use this time to refocus their priorities too.
“For many, it would be family and loved ones, and also oneself. Practise mindful living and use this time to reset and live by design, rather than default,” he said.
Just as important is being able to talk to someone about their emotions, said SOS’ Mr Tan.
“The fear of being a disappointment and embarrassment may lead individuals to hide their struggles and put on a facade that they may be coping well,” he added. “However, when we are able to openly talk about our emotions and thoughts, it helps to put things into perspective and manage the anxiety one may be feeling (before) it gets too overwhelming.”
For friends or loved ones of those who have been retrenched, Mr Nair cautioned them from treating the subject as taboo, as it could make the affected individual feel worse.
Similarly, he said they should avoid dishing out meaningless platitudes such as “don’t worry, I’m sure you will find a new job soon” or “it is what it is”.
Instead, friends and family should be empathetic and try to understand the retrenched worker as he goes through the grieving process of losing his or her job.
Dr Chan said having friends and loved ones checking in on the affected individuals regularly could help prevent their social isolation and withdrawal as well.
She noted that having conversations with or engaging the unemployed in activities could help increase their “life pie chart” to help them see that their lives are made up of more than just work.
Dr Yang said that many retrenched workers are able to cope with support from family and friends. However, “if their challenges are acute, encourage them to seek professional help”, he advised.
On a national level, Mr Nair believes that Singapore could afford to streamline its processes for granting financial assistance to those who need it.
“The feedback from my clients is … that they don't get assistance not because there isn't any, but because they (the processes) are over-bureaucratised,” he said.
An example which he cited is the household income criteria, which could mean a couple being ineligible for financial assistance even though one of them lost his or her job.
In response to queries, MSF reiterated that it provides ComCare assistance to low-income households to meet their basic living expenses, and household income is one qualifying criterion because it is a proxy for family support and wealth.
“However, it is not the sole criterion. When low-income households apply to our Social Service Offices (SSOs) for ComCare assistance, their needs are assessed holistically,” said the MSF spokesperson.
The spokesperson added that ComCare beneficiaries receive comprehensive support, which may include monthly cash assistance for living expenses, assistance with household bills, and assistance with medical bills. In addition, they may receive employment assistance and referrals to other government agencies and community partners for case work and counselling.
If their circumstances have changed, existing ComCare clients can approach their SSOs to request a review of their current support, said the spokesperson.
“SSOs will increase their current level of ComCare support if needed. If the individual or family comes forward with urgent needs, our SSOs will also provide them with ComCare Interim Assistance (cash), while reviewing their assistance package,” said the spokesperson.
Mr Nair noted that apart from being unemployed, another situation that can severely impact mental health is under-employment, where people work at jobs that do not recognise their trained or existing competencies. However, this is an issue which cannot be easily resolved amid an economic slump.
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Dr Yang believes that EAPs should be mandated for firms in Singapore. This will mean that organisations have to ensure adequate psychological or emotional support for outgoing and existing staff, he said.
Within the community, he suggested having counselling support — similar to peer support groups in organisations or schools — made more readily available for the public, such as at the community centres.
Apart from seeking assistance at the various family service centres, the National Care Hotline or SOS, MSF said individuals can also find out about available government support at https://www.supportgowhere.gov.sg/
On its part, the SPS has started the “One Psych Community” initiative which puts together a list of psychologists who have stepped forward to help specifically with the COVID-19 situation, by offering their services either pro bono or at reduced rates.
“Mental health should not be considered a good-to-have or a bonus. Taking care of ourselves and being open to addressing our mental health issues is fundamental to our ability as humans to connect, engage and live meaningfully,” said SPS’ Dr Chan.
Amid the pandemic, “prioritising our mental health should be at the forefront together with physical health, given its insidious and invisible nature”, she reiterated.
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