|Having good mental health and work-life balance will remain a pipe dream if we don’t treat them as priorities.
Paul Heng, NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia
You don’t want your boss to think you’re slacking.
You definitely don’t want to put your job at risk, especially if you’re a sole breadwinner.
The more these thoughts play in your head, the more stressed you get. In fact, you are putting your mental health at risk.
Does all this sound familiar?
That is because trying to strike a work-life balance and getting anxious about how you are performing at work is a growing global issue. The Covid-19 pandemic made it worse.
But what really matters is how you plan to address this issue, personally.
Success in their careers, and money, are important to Singaporeans – regardless of whether they have taken up a job or run their own business.
We work long hours, sometimes taking on side gigs. We demand a lot from ourselves, and our bosses also make demands on us. If we are not careful, our health can be compromised.
When the pandemic struck, many workers were told to work from home. At first, it seemed like a wonderful idea, and people enjoyed the freedom of not having to make that morning commute to work and getting to spend more time with the family.
Sadly, things soon went downhill. With no colleagues watching them work, some people felt they had to push themselves harder to be deserving of their day’s wages.
They ended up clocking even longer hours than before.
Also, as they were cooped up at home and couldn’t enjoy the relaxing company of their friends and colleagues, the stress magnified and mental health issues became worse.
A recent study conducted by Duke-NUS Medical School and the Institute of Mental Health suggested that issues related to mental health could be costing Singapore $16 billion a year.
It’s not just work and the economy that suffer. The family also pays a big price as marital discord sets in and sometimes spills over into family violence.
We are still paying the price for the two years of mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic. I don’t quite see light at the end of the tunnel.
Businesses need to be profitable and work needs to be done.
Even social organisations have to meet key performance indicators, so their supporters will continue donating money.
Asking bosses to “ease up” is not realistic. But that does not mean that we have to live with anxiety at the workplace.
Let’s start by understanding the root cause of mental stress.
Two major factors stand out – bosses’ expectations and individuals’ attitude towards self-care.
While companies can do a lot to make work less stressful for their employees, in the end, it is up to the workers to take charge of their own mental health.
Companies are going through a difficult phase right now. Some workers are reluctant to return to the office after two years of working from home.
While they try to cling on to this talent, bosses also have to grapple with managing those working on a hybrid arrangement.
With matters in a state of flux, it’s even more important for bosses to continuously reassess their expectations of workers.
They have to be trained to delegate effectively. Work assignments must be handed out carefully so that manageable stress for workers does not cross over to burnout. This can turn performers to under-performers needing professional mental health support.
Bosses must also be trained to identify telltale signs of mental stress among team members.
They should be able to spot if some of their colleagues show signs of fatigue early in the work day, have difficulty in focusing at work or during meetings, and find themselves unable to meet minimum work expectations.
This can be woven into a boss’ weekly list of things to do, and they should set aside time to communicate one-on-one with their team members.
Otherwise, everyone loses.
For example, an industry acquaintance was stressed over having to care for his mother who suffered from dementia.
Sometimes, he had to rush home from work to be with her. His work suffered and he was asked to resign. Sadly, he had neither reached out to nor spoken to his supervisor.
Another key issue to address is annual leave. It is not uncommon to hear workers complain that they can’t clear their leave on account of the demands of work.
Companies typically allow unconsumed leave to be carried forward to the next year.
This is a common issue in labour-intensive industries such as offshore marine, retail, and food and beverage, but it defeats the entire objective of having annual leave.
Leave is meant to be taken so that workers can recharge properly. Companies must force people to consume their leave and not make it optional.
But in the end, the buck stops with you. It is up to you to take care of yourself so that you can do the job you are paid to do.
You shouldn’t be falling sick carrying out your duties.
The first step towards attaining this is to set the right expectations of ourselves, and to recognise that everyone has a threshold and capacity for the amount of work we can do.
We should respect this as we owe ourselves a duty of self-care.
Know where to draw the line when you have too much work to handle.
Your big worry, of course, will be being perceived by your boss as slacking and not willing to do more. This is when both parties must sit down and talk to realign expectations.
At the end of the day, it is just a job. I say this not to belittle the importance of a job.
But to succeed in it at the expense of our health is too high a price to pay.
It’s also up to workers to recognise signs of the beginning of mental stress in themselves and how to activate support.
They can also rope in family members to flag to them when something is not right – such as when generally good-natured spouses become increasingly short-tempered.
Reading up helps, so does attending talks on the subject.
It may also be worthwhile for the National Trades Union Congress and the authorities to keep tabs on the situation.
One way to do this would be to make it compulsory for employers to submit periodic statistics on the state of their workers’ mental health, similar to sharing details of retrenchment exercises. The devil is in the details – what data to capture in the statistics.
Demands and pressures at the workplace are not going to ease up. Things will probably get worse, and we may well find ourselves with even bigger mental health challenges.
People are Singapore’s key assets and the country is also a magnet for talent, as it has a reputation as a great place to pursue one’s career.
We must do all we can to preserve this while ensuring that our workers go to work happy and mentally healthy.
Paul Heng is founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia.