By June Ramli
Kuala Lumpur, Sept 26: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes in our lives. The most evident one would be the working from home concept, also known as WFH. Over a year ago, the WFH concept was unheard of among employees and employers. But as we all know, the pandemic has disrupted that lifestyle for good. These days the WFH concept is a norm among companies due to lockdowns enforced by governments around the world. At first, millions had struggled with the transition when the WFH was first implemented at the start of last year. However, today many have warmed up with the concept and have adopted such working arrangements with gusto with some workers wanting it to be a permanent fixture in their jobs from now on. But as WFH becomes a norm, some workers have complained that the concept has affected their mental health due to the lack of home and work boundaries leading some to work longer hours. To shed some light on the matter, Aisling Group founder and managing director Melissa Norman (pictured above) gave us her take in this exclusive interview with DailyStraits.com.
1. What are the factors contributing to Malaysians higher anxiety levels about WFH?
Various factors are contributing to Malaysians’ higher anxiety levels during the work-from-home period, and ultimately it comes down to juggling expectations at work and home. A study conducted by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum, on the pandemic’s effect on the Malaysian workforce, found that Malaysians experienced more anxiety about job security, stress due to changes in work routines and organisation, and stress due to family pressure compared to the global average. Those working from home will have to juggle work responsibilities and family commitments. This is challenging especially for those who care for the elderly and young children. There is also a danger of blurring boundaries between work hours and personal time, which could lead to people working longer hours, having less downtime, and being at higher risk of feeling burned out. Another factor would be the feeling of isolation and loneliness that some people may face when working from home, as they are not able to connect with co-workers as easily. There are also those whose home environment may not be conducive to doing work, for instance, if they are living in small, cramped spaces with other people, or do not have the equipment they need to do work at home.
2. Loneliness and self-isolation are prevalent during the pandemic. What can team leaders do to help their team cope with these challenges?
It’s important for team leaders to engage with their team, to touch base not only as a group but individually as well, to know the challenges different members are facing and to try to help them find solutions that work for the organisation and the staff. Having regular catch-up sessions and online activities for work and play would also go a long way towards fostering a positive relationship as staff would not feel so isolated and would feel appreciated as individuals.
3. What are some of the best practices by companies in terms of looking after the mental wellbeing of their employees?
Many companies are coming up with wellness programmes and activities to promote mental wellbeing for their employees. Simple acts like weekly catch up sessions, fun online activities, internal sharing of tips on how to handle stress, virtual workout sessions, or starting a buddy system to check on each other, for example, would help keep a team close even if they are physically unable to meet up. Part of promoting mental health would be normalising mental health discussions and providing employees with access to a counsellor if required. Over the past year and a half, where issues of mental health have come to the fore, this should not be seen as a taboo topic at the workplace. Some of the initiatives our clients are doing to promote the mental wellbeing of their employees are putting in place mandated leave to ensure that employees take a break; onboarding in-house mental health certified therapists for their employees to access at no cost; and providing paid holiday apartments, to encourage people to take breaks, to name a few.
4. What can employees themselves do to maintain a better work-life balance during WFH?
Just as employers have to trust their employees to meet their work commitments, employees, too, have a responsibility to not abuse that trust. Hence, they have to ensure that they still meet their deadlines and maintain their work productivity. Having effective time management is crucial, along with knowing how to prioritise and organise their work and home commitments. Communication is very important; employees have to engage with their team and their supervisors on what they are doing, and if they are facing challenges in meeting their deadlines at work. On an individual level, employees should take breaks, which would help them collect their thoughts and improve their productivity. They should educate themselves on their organisation’s WFH policies, which would help them set boundaries in their work and personal space and time.
5. How do you think maintaining a good work-life balance will improve their mental health and performance at work?
Before the pandemic, when most of us were still working in a physical office outside of the home, it was easier to demarcate our “work time” and our “personal time” as you had a specific time and place for both. The WFH model blurs the line between work and personal time as we’re working at home, away from the rest of our team, and with the disruptions from our personal life coming into play. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you don’t maintain a good work-life balance and if you don’t get a handle on your time management. Without proper time management, and prioritising of tasks, you would find yourself falling behind in both your work and at home, which would then become a vicious cycle as the responsibilities for both just pile up. When employees’ personal needs and well-being are in order, they would be able to focus and perform better at work.
6. Most Malaysian managers are micromanagers but with WFH, they have had to learn how to trust their subordinates to do work while not under supervision. Has this been a challenging assignment for both the employers and employees?
Yes, I do believe that the sudden and swift manner in which we had to change from the way we are used to working to the WFH model would have been a great challenge for many people. Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a rise in the number of people facing stress and anxiety related to having to juggle work and personal commitments. On the flip side, we have also seen how resilient people can be, and there is a significant portion of people who have adjusted and adapted better than others. It comes back to communication, I believe. For managers and supervisors, it is crucial to be clear in your engagement with your staff, to be transparent of expectations as they work remotely, and to focus more on deliverables rather than being “present”. For employees, it’s about being disciplined and having good time management; to ensure they diligently fulfil their work and home commitments. And, again, communication; they have to be able to communicate well with their team and their supervisors for work to run as smoothly as possible, which, in turn, would help everyone maintain their mental well-being during uncertain times.
7. Before the pandemic WFH was unheard of, now as the economy slowly opens up, will this kind of hybrid working module be more forthcoming among Malaysian employers?
Yes, I believe WFH, or remote working, at least in some form or other, will be a permanent and more prominent feature of the work landscape in the foreseeable future. Earlier this year the Public Services Department has indicated that WFH will be a long-term policy beyond the pandemic as civil servants have done well in this mode. Whether or not this mode of working will remain standard practice for the private sector, though, depends. With the economy opening up again, many businesses are intending to go back to the previous standard of working in premises. Having said that, several may adopt a hybrid model, where part of the week is spent in the office, and part remotely, or having split teams onsite and offsite. Several large organisations, such as several major banks, have announced their intention to adopt a hybrid model moving forth.
8. Do you foresee more stay-at-home mums returning to work now that there is a hybrid concept available?
Yes, I believe companies that have a hybrid model, with more flexible work arrangements, would be better placed to attract this demographic of the workforce. For this reason, too, we see more working mothers opting for gig work, which would enable them to better balance their work and family commitments. Flexible work arrangements can only go so far to support these mums coming back to the workforce, though. There needs to be familial support as well, hence the responsibilities at home that are traditionally carried by women (housework, caring for children and elderly parents, for instance) have to be shared by the household and not carried by the women alone. Policies that support the family, as a whole, such as subsidised childcare and parental leave, would also help encourage more mothers to come back to the workforce.
9. Do you have any localised studies that state that Malaysian employees are happy working from home as opposed to the old ways of working from an office setting?
There have been several studies of the work landscape regarding the pandemic, the WFH model and its effects on the workforce which include input from workers in Malaysia. One such example is Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Malaysia’s ‘Making Flexible Work, Work: Towards Better and More Inclusive Work-Life Practices’, which was released in August. This study revealed that employers who embraced flexible work arrangements (FWAs) saw increased productivity while their employees experienced a better quality of life. There is also a study released earlier this year by Microsoft, as part of its first annual ‘Work Trend Index’ titled “The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?”. This global study, whose findings were released in May this year, included about 1,000 people in Malaysia. And it found that while 77 per cent of workers in Malaysia surveyed want flexible remote work options to continue, 75 per cent are also craving more in-person time with their teams.
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