Since the lockdown began, have you been sleeping more or less than you usually do, and waking up at unusual hours? Is your energy level different, and are you moodier than before? Have your dietary habits changed, and are you eating more junk food than usual?

It’s very likely that you’re experiencing low-to-medium-level psychological stress because of the pandemic. But because you don’t have a high temperature, cough or other symptoms of the illness, you don’t think that Covid-19 has affected you health-wise. You also don’t want to be a burden to our health system at a critical time like this – so you tell yourself you’re fine.

But psychologist Maria Micha says you’re not fine. In the past two months, the 23-year veteran has been busier than ever, taking telecalls at various hours from long-term and new clients who are finding it increasingly hard to cope with the lockdown. Many are experiencing unconscious stress, but don’t take it seriously enough to adopt new strategies to deal with it.

Ms Micha, who hails from Greece and practises in Singapore, has been counseling corporate clients for two decades on issues such as work stress, burnout, performance anxiety and work-life balance. She thinks companies should do more to help their employees now with their mental health, because government resources are very stretched.


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What psychological challenges are corporates facing now?

For many corporates, the first thing is the challenge of working from home. How do we switch to video conferencing and maintain engagement with our teams through these multiple windows? How do we deal with the distractions at home and still get work done? These psychological and technological shifts have not been easy for many, especially at a time when so many businesses are struggling. Some companies now find that their products and services have been made redundant. Other companies offering essential services, such as supermarkets and food delivery companies, are working round the clock with new and enlarged teams, and that has its own challenges.

Some people are simultaneously dealing with bad marriages that are under more strain because they’re confined to a space with spouses they don’t like. Others are facing the stress of someone close to them who is sick or has died from Covid-19, but they cannot be with that loved one in those final moments or mourn their loss in the usual ways. It isn’t the case for Singapore where the Covid-19 death number is low. But in certain parts of the world, everyone knows someone who’s lost someone to the coronavirus. So the result is that cases of stress, depression and anxiety have spiked in recent months.

However, this is the time when mental and physical health care are of utmost importance. We need our immune systems to be strong so we can face both the psychological and physiological challenges.


Why are some people facing difficulty shifting to a virtual work mode?

Some people are simply more rigid in their ways. They have particular work habits which now have to be radically changed. They don’t like Zoom meetings because they cannot read the room and people’s responses properly. You may not realise this, but it actually requires a lot of trust and confidence to be able to talk to someone without the usual visual cues. When you have to engage with as many as 20 people in a virtual meeting, and you have to pay more intense attention to their words and voices so you can pick up the subtext. It can be draining.


What can corporations do to help their employees through this crisis?

Corporations really need to step up and help their employees at the moment. Government resources are very stretched as they are trying to save people from dying and keep the general population physically safe, so mental health may not be topmost on their priority lists. But that’s where the private sector can step in. In my opinion, companies should hire mental health professionals to make relatively low-cost webinars offering employees tips and advice on how to maintain their sanity and functionality, and deal with the challenges of simultaneously working and homeschooling their kids, and other real-life challenges.

Companies should have counsellors checking in with their employees to make sure they have someone to talk to if they need that. It is also a very good time to increase empathy among teams, allowing members to talk to each other honestly without thinking they’re going to be seen as the weakest link if they admit to facing stress and anxiety. Everyone needs to adjust to this current reality. And the people who can learn to adjust are the ones who will come out of this with much higher levels of emotional intelligence and resilience. In fact, I think that a lot of good corporate practices can emerge out of this crisis if handled the right way.


(Related: Using wellness to tackle problems of the new economy)


On the individual level, what can we do to support our own mental health?

I have clients who now look in the mirror and don’t recognise themselves anymore. And that can lead to the subconscious perception that you’re not doing well under the circumstances, which in turn can take you down a spiral of depression involving alcohol, substance abuse or online gambling – which, by the way, are booming in this lockdown. People are losing the essence of who they are in this crisis.

I advise my clients to create a routine for themselves now more than ever, because so many aspects of our lives have changed. You need to wake up and sleep at a particular time. You need to make time for exercise everyday to keep your body and immune system strong.

Exercise at home using YouTube videos, and learn to meditate using apps. Because many hair and beauty salons have to be closed right now, you need to maintain a grooming routine to keep yourself clean and your self-esteem high. If you’re a woman who likes to wear makeup, you should still wear makeup even though you’re working from home. You need to do whatever needs to be done to maintain some kind of structure and normalcy.

The most important thing right now is being able to adjust your perception and realising that much of this crisis is out of your hands – something that high-flying executives used to high levels of control find hard to do. Accept that you can’t change the situation, but that you can use this opportunity to evolve and come out stronger on the other side. You have to allow the government to take over some of your decisions, and healthcare professionals to help you if you’re undergoing stress and anxiety. On your own, you could use this time to readjust your goals and reset your life. This could be a time to reconcile differences with your loved one, discover things about your children you never knew, find new hobbies with your spouse such as dancing or cooking. You could use the time to dream of the future you really want, and then work backwards to figure out how to achieve it; as they say, a couple that dreams together stays together.

People can discover their true strengths in a time like this – for them, Covid-19 might actually be a blessing.


This article was originally published in The Business Times.


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