Ella, not her real name, was working as a designer in an advertising agency for five years when the pandemic hit. “I think people have some perceptions about a job in advertising already; they know that it is a really toxic work environment. Unfortunately, I cannot say they are wrong,” she said. “I would clock-in at 7:00 a.m. and would clock-out by midnight. I would have multiple projects at the same time and everybody would expect me to deliver superb output in each of them. The turnaround time was always very short. It was normalized. And, through the years, I just got used to it.”
In January 2020, two months prior to the first day of the lockdowns in Manila, Ella was already experiencing symptoms of anxiety. She recalled, “I was always nervous and trembling for no exact reason; like simply paying my fare in the cab would cause me panic. It was so weird.”
She was already toying around the idea of seeking professional help, although she was still heavily reluctant about it. “I was not even sure if it was something that serious to bother a psychologist or a counselor about. I never really thought of it as alarming, but I also knew at the back of my head that this was not me; I never experienced anything like this before,” Ella added.
Ella continued debating with herself as to whether or not she would seek professional help… until the pandemic hit.
“The transition got even more stressful. Our leaders were not really sure about what to do, and so it transpired to us as well; we also felt that we did not know what to do,” Ella recalled. “Few weeks into the pandemic and I started having nightmares. I could not file a leave at that time because we got understaffed. Gosh, it was such a really stressful time.”
Ella, surely, was not alone in that thought. A 2021 report by the American Psychological Association showed that 71% of employees typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday. People, also, now feel they have become more overworked yet underpaid; 56% said that their low salaries are affecting their stress levels and 50% said they have too heavy of a workload in 2021 — higher than 49% and 44%, respectively, in 2019.
World Health Organization (WHO) recently said that major lifestyle changes such as navigating through the work-from-home setup, accepting temporary unemployment, being a parent and a teacher during children’s forced homeschooling, and just getting used to the lack of physical contact with friends and family, among others, are very challenging but also very important; the discussion of mental health, after all, have come closer to home.
"We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous strain in our health as well as in social and economic systems. Many people are experiencing psychological distresses, anxiety, helplessness, and uncertainty," said Dr. Jasmine Vergara, a psychiatrist and the technical officer for mental health and substance abuse at WHO Philippines. "The new realities and major lifestyle changes are telling us why it is important to look after our mental health as well."
Eventually, in June 2021, Ella was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. “From March to June last year, I remember I was really having a hard time adjusting to the remote work setup. I lived in a very tiny space and did not have any physical interaction with my friends and family. It really added to the stress and anxiety that I was already carrying during the transition to remote work,” she said.
This rising occupational phenomenon is leading some companies globally to start taking action in safeguarding and championing their employees' mental health, and this is why the prioritization of workplace wellness emerged in many published lists as the top mental health trend for 2021.
"The good news is that many business leaders insist [that] this unprecedented mental health crisis requires companies to make mental health and wellness a priority,” said Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., who built his professional career on the themes of resilience and work-life balance, in an opinion article for Forbes. “Making discussions of mental health a standard practice and destigmatizing mental health issues are at the top of the list along with prioritizing self-care and workplace wellness.”
Global Wellness Institute defined "workplace wellness" as “any workplace health promotion activity or organizational policy designed to support healthy behavior among employees and to improve health outcomes.” Workplace wellness has been expanded over the past decade to encompass the creation of a “culture of health” within the worksite, which is what Robinson suggested in his Forbes opinion.
“Making discussions of mental health a standard practice and destigmatizing mental health issues are at the top of the list along with prioritizing self-care and workplace wellness.”Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.
Robinson quoted Jamie Coakley, the vice president of people at Electric, an IT support firm: “The burnout that results from working from home and the limited boundaries it creates (bedroom offices, longer hours, fewer breaks) will continue to impact employee wellness. Companies that celebrate time off and resting will become the norm as opposed to working long hours and never taking [paid time-off]–this will become a thing of the past.”
This is why Coakley predicted fewer work hours and more paid time-off in the cards starting this year, and that access to therapy, meditation, and alternative forms of wellness will also become essential employee benefits in 2021.
But can these alternative benefits, really, be implemented by a business or organization that is also struggling to survive in the business amid the pandemic? Up to what extent can employers really champion and safeguard their employees’ mental health? And should they implement these wellness efforts, would there be a significant impact on their people’s mental health as targeted?
Employers as advocates of their employees’ mental health
Consumer goods company Procter & Gamble (P&G) Philippines is one of the employers that have already begun putting a huge emphasis on their workplace wellness efforts.
“This adjustment to a fully remote work setup has presented new challenges for employees especially in addressing both work and personal or family responsibilities. This is why at the onset, our employees were encouraged to make full use of the flexible work arrangement policies and support,” said Ryx Nabos, P&G Philippines’s IT Director and the leader of the company’s Vibrant Living program which is dedicated to their policies on corporate wellness. “For example, we can move around our work schedules to accommodate our less flexible personal priorities like assisting our children in their online learning (for parents) or to simply have enough time for our personal fitness and hobbies even while staying at and working from home.”
So, since the lockdowns began last year, Vibrant Living’s activities have all gone purely virtual, too, to accommodate the needs of P&G’s employees. Some of these activities include weekly virtual workouts like high-intensity interval training, yoga, and cardio kickboxing; webinars about mental health, self-care, and pandemic fatigue; and spirituality sessions such as virtual masses, recollections, and interfaith dialogues.
P&G also strengthened their Employee Assistance Program, in which their employees can seek confidential and private consultations, coaching, and counseling sessions whether online or by phone (and, in some countries, face-to-face) 24/7.
The consumer goods company also introduced what they call “Flex Leaves” earlier this year, which gives their employees five paid leave days which they can flexibly use for emergencies or personal milestone celebrations — echoing what Robinson and Coakley predicted about paid time-off. "The flexibility of giving employees this time-off becomes even more crucial as we manage our work and personal time. These Flex Leaves are on top of the standard vacation and sick leaves," Nabos said.
“This adjustment to a fully remote work setup has presented new challenges for employees especially in addressing both work and personal or family responsibilities. This is why at the onset, our employees were encouraged to make full use of the flexible work arrangement policies and support,”Ryx Nabos, P&G Philippines
Once a while, they are also holding a “Pause and Recharge Week”, during which all meetings and calls are canceled and non-urgent emails are discouraged to give their employees a break from the daily hours spent in virtual meetings and work in front of their computers. As Nabos explained, "It allows employees to pause simultaneously, thus decreasing mental worry that they will return to work overload if all others are working while they were recharging."
Nabos acknowledged that their business operations are heavily dependent on their employees’ safety, health, and ability to perform at their peak, hence these programs.“And when we say ‘taking care of their health’, it is no longer just physical health but also emotional, social, and importantly, mental health. If you want employees to perform at their best, they have to be in good health across all aspects.”
Meanwhile, TaskUs, a provider of outsourced digital services, has their own Wellness & Resiliency (W&R) department that is entirely dedicated to ensuring that their employees have the right tools and support to create a healthy workplace for themselves to improve any feelings of stress, anxiety, or burnout. They have been initiating workplace wellness efforts such as 24/7 psychological and psychiatric services, digital courses on wellness, and yoga and meditation, among others, for four years by now already.
While most of their employees are working remotely, TaskUs still ensures that they are fostering a fun and collaborative work environment virtually. Connect 15, for example, is a program that was launched during this time of remote work. It gives anyone the chance to have 15 minutes to connect with someone from the senior leadership team and have a casual conversation. Aside from this, employees also have weekly one-on-one meetings with their managers for coaching and personal development.
They also take pride in their in-house life coaching program, in which in-house life coaches are available 24/7 to attend to an employee’s concerns. Rachel Lutz-Guevara, TaskUs’s Vice President of Global Wellness & Resiliency explained, "Employees can present a variety of issues—from relationships with their colleagues and personal struggles to professional development and career advice,” and the life coach can provide a listening ear and professional advice, among others.
“We have heavily invested in the Transformative Coaching training of our 49 life coaches and W&R leadership with Coach Master’s Academy,” Guevara explained. “Transformative coaching integrates the advanced adult learning theories with the science of positive psychology that offer our life coaches a very powerful tool to enable change and support that are highly sustainable.”
Encouraging employees to find hobbies and form support groups
Noticeably, both P&G and TaskUs have their respective programs that initiate culture-building among their people. These programs are pushing their employees to do other things other than their daily tasks at work and to form communities through several support groups.
So, while many companies continue overworking their employees, some employers like P&G and TaskUs are already starting to put priority on their people’s lives outside of their jobs.
At P&G, for example, their Vibrant Living team hosts a series of virtual talks about different interests or hobbies such as gardening, coffee brewing, cosmetics, baking, and pet care to encourage their employees to pick up and sustain a hobby and to connect with colleagues who share the same passions.
P&G has also given more intentionality to the diversity of activities and support groups available for different employee groups. For instance, their Parents @ Work group supports employee parents' interests or needs such as balancing online homeschooling while working from home. Most recently, they also hosted Vibrant Living sessions for handling medical emergencies at home and a four-part series on financial literacy and investing.
"All these programs acknowledge and try to support the areas of life and work that cause employees mental stress, anxiety, and worry. It provides knowledge and a support community," Nabos said.
On the other hand, TaskUs has a wide variety of employee resource groups (ERGs) that focus on promoting and fostering a culture that advocates equality and creates a community free from discrimination. They have a dedicated ERG for their LGBTQIA+ employees, one for their female employees, and another for their employees of color, among others.
"In the time of remote work, these ERGs serve as our employees' safe space where they meet among themselves virtually, talk about existing issues on identity and expression and equality, and come up with their suggested policies that they can propose to our leaders. ERGs allow for a diverse and inclusive workplace where people feel supported," said Vina Paglicawan, TaskUs's Director for Wellness & Resiliency.
She added, “ERGs create a safe space at work free of biases that prevent employees from being their best selves and free of barriers that prevent them from having an equal opportunity to succeed. When an employee feels included, respected, and valued, they are able to spend their time and energy more productively.”
If numbers are of any basis, P&G and TaskUs’s respective programs have proven to be successful: More than 70% of P&G employees have attended at least one virtual Vibrant Living event in the last 18 months, and their employee survey also showed that employees who attended Vibrant Living activities scored 15 points higher on health & wellbeing metrics than those who did not. On the other hand, from September 2020 to September 2021 alone, TasksUs’s individual coaching program reached 10,000 sessions in the Philippines alone, which contributed to the 94% employee well-being score that TaskUs recorded recently.
“We are collectively living through an unprecedented life experience and it is more important than ever that employers are considerate of the variety of emotional experiences their employees are going through. In practice, this means companies may need to evaluate policies and procedures that address psychological health and safety,” said Guevara. “If they have not done so, now is the time for employers to strengthen their respective W&R efforts in the workplace.”
“We are collectively living through an unprecedented life experience and it is more important than ever that employers are considerate of the variety of emotional experiences their employees are going through. In practice, this means companies may need to evaluate policies and procedures that address psychological health and safety."Rachel Lutz-Guevara, TaskUs
Everybody, in their own little ways, can also practice self-care. Vergara of WHO Philippines has advice to employees who are still having a hard time adjusting to the remote work setup: “Mental breaks have become even more important; it should no longer be just an option but a must. It is important to practice mindfulness, do meditation, or even just listen to music that can reduce your stress.”
She added, “If you are facing your computer the entire day, it is even more important that you allot even just 30 minutes per day to do physical activities such as walking, running, or biking.”
There is no shame in seeking professional help if these proactive self-care efforts are no longer working. “If you are seeing that you are no longer functioning the way you used to, if you have been having a hard time sleeping, or if you have been feeling that sense of helplessness, it would be advisable to seek professional help already,” said Vergara.
This is the same advice that Ella has to people who, just like herself before, are in denial of the symptoms that they are experiencing. “You know your mind and body more than anybody else. Now that we are working on our own, we have become even more responsible for our own wellness.”
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. He covers societies, cultures, and gender.
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