Thursday, 19 November 2020

Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces

MOM, NTUC and Singapore National Employers Federation issue new advisory to tackle mental health needs of workers
Firms asked to address workers' mental health amid Covid-19 pandemic
Advisory calls on them to train managers to spot signs of distress, give staff adequate rest
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2020

With lines between the workplace and home getting blurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, employers have been advised to address the mental health needs of their workers who are under more stress and facing a higher risk of burnout.

An advisory issued yesterday called on companies to recognise the need for their staff to have adequate rest outside work hours.

This can be done by establishing a work-life harmony policy to offer clarity on after-hours work communication, said the advisory, which was jointly released by the tripartite partners: the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation.

The recommendations come a month after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that an inter-agency task force has been convened to tackle the mental health needs of Singaporeans. He said the coronavirus pandemic has brought about more stresses, pressures and disruptions.

The outbreak has led many workplaces to adopt work-from-home arrangements as the norm, leading to employees feeling more stressed and putting them at a higher risk of burnout, the tripartite partners said.

They encouraged employers to organise talks and workshops on the issue, and train managers to spot signs of distress, and offer help to their colleagues.

It was important to set boundaries, they noted. For example, firms should set out a clear position that employees were not expected to respond to work-related messages sent after work hours - unless they were marked urgent or critical.

Companies were advised to extend employees' flexible benefits to cover mental health-related consultations and treatments, or offer workers access to counselling services such as employee-assistance programmes.

But workers and self-employed persons can also reach out for help if they feel overwhelmed.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who introduced the advisory at the start of the Singapore Workplace Safety and Health Conference 2020, said the pandemic will be a long-drawn battle and urged employers and workers to adopt the recommendations.

"While the future remains uncertain as the world continues to battle Covid-19, let us not lose sight of our goals," she added. "It is timely for the Government, unions, businesses and workers to come together and collectively chart a future where everyone can bounce back."

It is the first time the biennial conference is being held online.

NTUC assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong said that workers were facing greater stress from juggling work and personal commitments during this period of prolonged telecommuting work arrangements. He said the advisory will "help to reassure workers that safeguards are in place to support their mental well-being".

Workplace Safety and Health Council chairman John Ng added that the advisory will help employers to take proactive steps to look after their workers' mental health, "so that they are able to stay focused at work, work safely and stay healthy".

"In turn, employers will benefit from a healthy and productive workforce which can contribute to better business performance," he added.

MPs, unions welcome new mental health advisory for workers
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 17 Nov 2020

Members of Parliament and unions welcomed the announcement on Tuesday (Nov 17) of a new tripartite advisory to look after the mental well-being of workers here.

The advisory comes as employees face greater mental stress and a higher risk of burnout from juggling work and personal commitments, especially with telecommuting work arrangements due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces was launched by the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation.

NTUC assistant secretary-general and Radin Mas MP Melvin Yong, who had highlighted workplace burnout, said the advisory reassures workers that safeguards are in place to support their mental health.

"It provides practical measures that employers can adopt to support their employees' mental well-being. The advisory also provides a list of resources that employers, employees and self-employed persons can tap on," he added.

One recommendation urges employers to establish a work-life harmony policy to offer employees clarity on after-hours work communication.

Mr Yong, who has been pushing for a "Right to Disconnect" law that would help employees have protected time to recharge, noted that workers can better focus on their work when they have enough rest.

Fellow NTUC assistant secretary-general and labour MP Desmond Choo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said the decentralised workplace norms, such as working from home, have "drastically reduced traditional support structures" to help workers cope with stress.

"Coupled with recessionary pressures from Covid-19, the impact on mental health is magnified," he added.

Yio Chu Kang MP Yip Hon Weng, who is a member of the GPC for Manpower, noted that the pandemic has reduced physical interactions between individuals, resulting in workers having less opportunities to confide in others if they need help.

He added that those who have to work from home and deal with caregiving duties, which include looking after their children, may find it hard to multitask.

Mr Yip called on employers to build up their awareness of mental health matters, which will allow them to detect issues early and find help for their staff.

Unions and associations said that with work-from-home arrangements becoming the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future, such a move would ensure a healthy and productive workforce.

Employers are recommended to provide access to counselling services and training managers to spot signs of distress.

Singapore FinTech Association president Chia Hock Lai said: "While there might be incremental cost associated with such initiatives, they are also likely to result in more engaged and mentally healthier employees, which would translate into more sustainable productivity gains for the companies."

Mr Gary Khoo, director of preventive health programmes at the Health Promotion Board, said employers can train leaders at the workplace to identify and support staff who may have mental health concerns.

"This will create a supportive workplace environment for better engagement of employees," he added.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem added: “When an organisation looks after their employees, it’ll reflect positively in their business. Hence, paying attention to an organisation’s mental wellness is a business imperative, and not just nice to have.”

When WFH = Work from hell for some employees in Singapore
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 22 Nov 2020

Working from home might sound like a dream come true. But for many workers here, that arrangement during the ongoing pandemic has been a nightmare.

At one content marketing firm, employees on work-from-home arrangements are forced to fill out detailed time sheets on what they do every hour.

The firm went as far as to warn its staff not to use the time to run personal errands or meet with friends, and justified the time sheets as an extra tool for supervisors to manage their departments remotely.

"It is quite disruptive, as we have to find time outside our usual tasks to complete the list," said a junior manager at the firm.

"Sometimes, I would have to backtrack through my e-mails and call logs to remember exactly what I did at each hour."

At some firms, bosses send non-urgent work messages late at night, and expect a prompt response.

Others, knowing that their workers were stuck at home during the circuit breaker period, frequently dragged virtual meetings past work hours, said employees on telecommuting arrangements.

One employee at a consultancy firm said she often received non-urgent messages from her supervisor after dinner time.

On some occasions, her superior would text the team's group chat past midnight seeking suggestions for projects.

"Such messages were more frequent during the circuit breaker, because she knew we couldn't really be anywhere else but home," said the employee.

"I would often go to sleep thinking about work."

But they pointed out that the conditions might have existed long before the pandemic, such as in legal, advertising and auditing firms where working overtime is a norm.

A former account manager at an advertising firm recalled her management imposing a fine of $2 for every minute someone showed up late after the 10am reporting time, even though the staff usually worked past 10pm daily.

"My team had to work overtime almost every day, sometimes as late as 4am. But no matter how late we worked, we had to report to the office every morning," she said, adding that she does not know if the agency still uses the system of fines.

PeopleWorldwide Consulting managing director David Leong said many Asian countries, including Singapore, value hard work and diligence.

However, he added: "Employers must be cognisant that when workers break down as a result of pressure and an oppressive environment, their work performance will be impacted."

Staying in, burning out: Covid-19 casts spotlight on mental health at work
The blurring of lines between the workplace and home has put pressure on many workers, a Sunday Times survey finds
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 22 Nov 2020

For the past eight months, an operations manager has been monitoring performance trends and conducting meetings from his dining table, which he shares with his accountant wife.

In between work tasks, the 34-year-old grabs quick meals and looks after his active two-year-old son while his spouse is engaged in video calls. He also logs on close to midnight to clear work e-mails, sometimes working until 2am.

Being out of the office, he feels the need to be more plugged in and finds it hard to switch off when work messages appear on his phone. Coupled with that is the need for him to be more involved in childcare, now that he is always home and available to help.

"It is exhausting," he admitted. "In the past, at least I could tune out when I left the office."

It's a plight that is being played out in countless other homes.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with no end in sight, has forced many to adopt telecommuting and split team arrangements as the norm.

Though in themselves not stressful, the prolonged set up has blurred the lines between the workplace and home, leading to workers feeling stressed and risking burnout, observers told The Sunday Times. Many, especially women, are finding that the duties of home and office are now encroaching on each other and demanding their attention, often at the same time.

An ST poll of 1,200 respondents last week found that 71 per cent feel more stressed since they started working from home. The survey also noted that 77 per cent - or three in four employees - on such work arrangements are putting in more hours than before.

Recognising that mental well-being is a growing concern, the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation issued an advisory last Tuesday (Nov 17) to get employers to address their workers' mental health needs.

Their recommendations include organising talks on the issue, training managers to spot signs of distress, and offering clarity on after-hours work communication.

Home doubles as office, but may be less conducive

While some workers enjoy the greater flexibility of working from home, many feel overwhelmed playing multiple roles.

Others stress over increased workloads from demanding bosses, working in less conducive spaces and being socially isolated.

NTUC assistant secretary-general and labour MP Melvin Yong has come across workers, especially professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), who have to juggle multiple responsibilities at home, including caring for their children and elderly parents, while trying to remain productive at work.

"Many now work increasingly longer hours as e-mails, calls and WhatsApp messages come in outside of their regular working hours," said Mr Yong, who has repeatedly raised the issue of workplace burnout in Parliament. "Some have Zoom work meetings in the night, which they never had before Covid-19."

Fellow NTUC assistant secretary-general and labour MP Desmond Choo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, noted that work has crept into personal spaces because of technology like messaging apps and videoconferencing. These have become even more prevalent with the pandemic.

"That means that work doesn't really end for our workers and many feel compelled to work non-stop," he said.

Mr Choo, who has met workers experiencing anxiety and depression working from home, said the pandemic has "reduced the traditional support structures to help employees cope with stress, while increasing the feeling of isolation".

In the past, they could unwind with colleagues over meals and breaks.

For many workers, their homes are not conducive to working.

Some households may have more than one family member doing virtual calls at the same time, while others do not even have proper work desks.

Sitting on the bed or sofa to work on the laptop is not ideal, said Mr Paul Heng, managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, who has met workers complaining of backaches and other ailments as their homes are not equipped with the right furniture for working long hours.

Fear of losing job amid recession-hit economy

The stress may be self-inflicted, as some workers may feel the need to live up to the expectations of their bosses and family members, Mr Heng added.

"Where do we draw the line between office hours and after? No one has the right answer because this is new. Many choose to err on the side of caution, that it is better to stretch the working hours."

This may have been heightened by the fear workers have of losing their jobs in the recession-hit economy.

Mr David Leong, managing director of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, feels, in fact, that the pressure from the job uncertainty is "greater than the presumed increased in workloading".

In the past few months, medical practitioners have also seen more complaints from workers of anxiety, insomnia and fatigue.

Dr Thomas Lee, consultant psychiatrist at The Resilienz Clinic, said his clinic has handled about 10 to 15 per cent more patients seeking help for work-related issues. Common complaints include feeling anxious, socially isolated and mentally exhausted.

Patients with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder may see their conditions worsen, he added.

Experts said, however, that while the pandemic has deepened the fault lines, work stress is a perennial problem, caused by poor bosses, overwork, and feelings of inadequacy, among other things.

The Government has taken notice, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announcing last month that an inter-agency task force will tackle the mental health needs of Singaporeans.

Senior clinical psychologist Jessie Chua said employers can start by creating an open and accepting work culture for workers to share their concerns.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem noted that employers may consider implementing workplace policies that value their workers' personal time or offer the flexibility to manage their working hours.

"When an organisation looks after its employees, it'll reflect positively on its business. Hence, paying attention to an organisation's mental wellness is a business imperative, and not just nice to have," she added.

Mental well-being advisory started from citizens' panel proposals
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 22 Nov 2020

The suggestions by a diverse group of 55 citizens, including employers, workers, homemakers and retirees, led to the new tripartite advisory released last Tuesday on safeguarding the mental well-being of workers.

A year ago, the Citizens' Panel on Work-Life Harmony submitted 17 recommendations, a key one of which was that people wanted more to be done for employees' mental well-being.

The panel was part of the larger Singapore Together movement, launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and his fourth-generation leadership team in June last year, to involve citizens more widely in shaping policies.

Recognising that some firms would not know how to go about supporting their workers' mental well-being, the parties involved - the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) - decided to give guidance on the measures they can take.

The Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces comes as employees face greater mental stress and a higher risk of burnout from juggling work and personal commitments, especially with telecommuting work arrangements due to the pandemic.

But putting together the advisory was not easy.

The parties had to consult various stakeholders, including persons with mental health conditions, and agencies such as the Institute of Mental Health and National Council of Social Service.

They also debated a number of issues, mostly involving how rigid the guidelines should be.

For instance, the recommendation for employers to establish a work-life harmony policy that offers clarity on after-hours work communication was "deliberated quite extensively".

The partners recognised the need for workers to have adequate rest, said MOM. "However, there were concerns on the practical implementation challenges, such as whether it will cause more rigidity to both employer and employee, (and the) difficulties in defining 'after-work' hours due to operational requirements and work across time zones."

It was then agreed that the recommendation should not be too prescriptive, to give companies and workers the leeway to work out suitable arrangements.

In developing the advisory, ideas such as extending flexible benefits to cover mental well-being consultations and treatments were raised, said NTUC assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong.

Other recommendations include training managers to spot signs of distress, and appointing mental wellness champions to organise relevant talks and workshops.

For a start, employers that do not have the resources to implement a comprehensive set of measures could prioritise those that are more suitable, said SNEF executive director Sim Gim Guan.

MOM said: "We hope that it will reduce the instances of burn out or (medical certificates) linked to mental health issues, and thereby improve employee productivity and fulfilment at work."

MOM to engage firms to lower disease, accident risk
Mental health support to also be enhanced, among recommendations by advisory panel
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2020

To better protect workers from infectious diseases and workplace accidents, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will work closely with employers and building owners on managing risks and staying vigilant.

Workers will also get better mental health support, with a free online assessment tool called iWorkHealth to be launched early next year to help employers identify sources of work stress, said Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence Zaqy Mohamad yesterday.

These were recommendations by the International Advisory Panel for Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) for a post-Covid-19 world and have been accepted by the Government, he added.

Speaking at the closing of the two-day virtual Singapore WSH Conference, he noted that as the pandemic changes the way businesses operate, with more people working from home, workplace safety and health must also be adjusted to address new concerns.

Given the risk of a future "disease X" that may be more infectious and lethal than Covid-19, the panel suggested that the ministry build on its experience working with public health authorities, through the multi-ministry task force, to integrate infectious disease management in the workplace.

To achieve this, the Government will work closely with employers and building owners to develop guidelines, such as sharing information on hot spots, for more targeted risk identification and interventions, said Mr Zaqy.

The panel also recommended greater mental health support at work, with companies encouraged to incorporate mental well-being as part of their risk assessment and management frameworks.

Panel member Wiking Husberg, an international consultant on occupational safety and health, said mental health is important to workers' and firms' productivity, but is a difficult area to legislate.

"Singapore ought to focus on promoting greater awareness and creating a supportive work organisation and environment that is conducive towards employees' mental well-being," added Mr Husberg.

On Tuesday, a tripartite advisory for mental well-being at work was issued on how companies can support their workers' mental health.

The panel also urged MOM to continue to maintain vigilance in preventing workplace accidents, even as companies manage new risks arising from Covid-19.

In particular, MOM should conduct deeper investigations into the top contributor of major injuries - slips, trips and falls - to understand the root causes of this growing problem. The first half of this year saw 16 workplace fatalities, 201 major injuries and 4,779 minor injuries. Most injuries were caused by slips, trips and falls.

There were 17 fatalities, 319 major injuries and 6,294 minor injuries in the same period last year.

One reason why injuries continued to happen, even during the circuit breaker period and despite the reduction in business activity, could be that companies and employees were preoccupied with implementing Covid-19 measures and overlooked the fundamentals of WSH, said Mr Zaqy.

To help combat this, the panel called for an approved code of practice to educate and engage company directors on their responsibilities and ways to ensure WSH risks are effectively managed.

Workers are also urged to cooperate and play their part in managing workplace risks, said Mr Zaqy.

Companies can tap technology such as virtual and augmented reality to manage both accident and Covid-19 risks, without the need for more money or manpower, he added.


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