Expert speaks up: The mental pain of isolation

Reduced social interaction during the pandemic can wreak havoc on one’s mental health and work performance, says Adrian Toh, vice president (development), Singapore Psychological Society.

What happens when people are made to function almost daily at home with far reduced social interactions over a long period of time?
Social support is key to many individuals. Social support can take many forms, such as having a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend over a meal or going hiking with friend. It is really about having someone to turn to or lean on. Social support makes getting through tough times and emotional difficulties a little easier.

But with implementation of Covid-19 safety measures, particularly social distancing, reduced visitation at home and working from home arrangements, it limits people’s access to social support. Naturally, with prolonged reduced social interaction, it will reduce one’s ability to manage emotional difficulties.

At work, reduced social interactions can impact the quality of work and relationship with colleagues. Cohesiveness and trust is built through face-to-face interaction, so without enough of that mistrust and miscommunications can set in and give rise to conflict.

And as employees continue to work in silos, they can lose focus on the purpose of the entire group and instead see only themselves. In the long term, this can affect work efficiencies and erode motivation to keep working.

I’ve seen more social media conversations about mental well-being throughout the pandemic. Is there really a growing awareness of mental well-being?
As we observe each of the 21st century pandemics, we see imprints of psychosocial impacts and varying degrees of psychological effects such as anxiety, which is often reported as distress, fear or panic, as well as anger, depression, insomnia, social isolation, loneliness and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Being more informed of the psychosocial impacts of past pandemics has led more mental healthcare professionals to bring this conversation to the public and to encourage help-seeking behaviour.

It also seems there are more mental health conversations now because of increased used of social media.

Are you seeing more individuals recognising and speaking up about their own mental well-being?
I am. As awareness of mental health grows, employers are showing more care about their staff’s mental well-being, such as by establishing an Employee Assistance Programme to provide accessible avenues for employees to seek help from.

Sometimes, people may not realise they are under stress. They may encounter more body aches, fall sick more often, or suffer more frequent or lasting migraines. People may therefore not go to a psychologist for help. Instead, they will go to a GP. The good thing is, GPs are now aware of the physiological symptoms of mental stress, and will refer patients to the right channel for help.

What can employers do?
First and foremost, employers or people in leadership roles must acknowledge the difficulties of working in current situations.

Second, they will need to connect with individual staff or with the team regularly, not just for work updates but also to find out how they are feeling and coping at home. Doing this brings back human interaction and show that they are not alone in this new and difficult situation. Furthermore, this also serves as a reminder that everyone is working as a team, and not as individuals, and support is available.

Third, they need to provide a helping hand to staff in need.

This was first published on TTGmice July-August 2021, as part of the cover feature, Teams under challenge.

Adrian Toh is a clinical psychologist at Thrive Family in Singapore. He also holds the role of vice president (development) at the Singapore Psychological Society.

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