Surrounded by multiple screens, an employee in his 20s responds to emails or accomplishes the day’s tasks under the flickering green light of his laptop camera.
For some employed millennials, this is their new lived reality from 9 to 5 — having their job subjected to a video call for close monitoring and verification by their boss, on the other end.
It’s been a year since companies have had to shift from physical offices to working from home, and the reach into employees’ personal space is becoming very real. In a recent Employee Mental Health survey conducted by Premier Value Provider (PVP), the highest levels of critical stress (31%), anxiety (47%), and depression (46%) were recorded last May 2020. Observed predominantly among the younger workforce aged 29 and below (Gen Z and Y), this alarming spike was most prevalent among employees in the manufacturing sector (the making of articles on a large scale using machinery) but also adjacent fields like mass communication and finance.
Mika* a 25-year-old working in digital media, has experienced the spike in tasks reported by advertising creatives and content creators as marketing activities move completely online. She confessed: “At the start of the quarantine, I felt like I was working 24 hours a day. Because I was at home, it almost seemed expected that I was available to answer inquiries received on our social media accounts 24/7 all while creating double the amount of content because we wanted to reach as many people as possible while they were online more and could see it. At one point, I felt extremely anxious any time I got any kind of notification because like my heart would beat faster and I felt really tense. I was developing a really unhealthy relationship with both my work and my phone and there was a lot of resentment bubbling inside of me.”
Nearing his two-year work anniversary, a financial analyst Karl* grew accustomed to extending until 11 p.m. on work days, “What also makes it harder is that it seems like we, as employees, don’t have a choice and that we’re ‘lucky’ to even still have jobs.” As the pandemic wears on, mental health has become an increasingly urgent problem for many companies to address.
And yet it’s rare to find a company where employees can claim mental health benefits. At present, Mercer found that 38% of health insurance providers in Asia still do not provide plans covering any mental health services while only less than 50% cover in-patient and outpatient treatment for mental health. Some of the services that can be claimed, when they are available, include counseling, psychotherapy, and psychiatric consultations.
"I felt extremely anxious any time I got any kind of notification because like my heart would beat faster and I felt really tense. I was developing a really unhealthy relationship with both my work and my phone and there was a lot of resentment bubbling inside of me."
Contrast that with the demand from the workforce. At his mental health group practice, licensed psychologist Raffy Inocencio shared that he experienced a 30% increase in patients seeking therapy on their own expense in 2020. Of these clients, roughly 40% are working millennials. During the start of layoffs and growing uncertainty, his new patients initially came to him expressing worries of having anger management problems, continuous irritability, and communication issues with the people they lived with at home.
When parents weren’t working, they were under stress balancing work with their compulsory second job as a teacher to their children undergoing distance learning. In a house where the majority are working, families fight about securing spaces and corners where they can have uninterrupted Zoom calls.
Not having a collective physical workplace has taken a toll on employees. “The source for this stress comes from the fact that in the office, there was an unspoken understanding that work would get done. Now, employees feel like this trust was taken away so abruptly,” Inocencio said. “To [patients], it felt like: if we were working in the office we were expected to work 100% but now that we’re working from home, we’re expected to do 200%.”
For many, the threat of ongoing unemployment is what’s keeping them where they are, even if they are unhappy. Richard*, a 26-year-old brand strategist, described being at the crossroad of leaving his job, “I’m lucky that the work I do isn't obsolete during this time, but sometimes I know I just stay at work because it's the safe option — and even though I know a lot of different companies also have a lot of clients, I am ironically scared of unemployment and the crippling anxiety of not knowing where to go elsewhere.”
Some employees, due to lack of measures around holding space for mental health at work, are forced to just be absent.
That said, the alarming decrease of employees reporting to work, as well as the passage of the Mental Health Act RA 11036 has propelled companies to look into offering mental health care benefits. Currently being piloted are one-on-one counselling and modular masterclasses led by psychiatrists and psychologists to educate managers and upper management on identifying the types of mental illnesses in their teams and their key drivers. The companies who are more proactive in setting up these programs are ones whose population are primarily millennials with a younger median age. “These would be the BPOs, big retailers, manufacturers and as of late, a significant number of companies from high-tech industries,” Teng Alday of Management Consultancy company Mercer, enumerated. With existing medical insurance programs not covering mental health and illness, Mercer is starting to work with employers’ Human Resources department and on-site doctors to set up self-funded plans that companies can use to design their own employee assistance programs that fit their budget.
Mercer forecasts that 90% of organizations will have set up new plans to improve employee health and well-being analytics by the end of 2021. With the wide shift to digital, 65% of companies they surveyed in the Philippines plan to address mental or emotional health issues through providing subscriptions to meditation apps and mental well-being platforms paired with the option for on-site counselling. Some companies are even considering the idea to offer virtual tutors to ease the struggles of parent employees in their additional role as a teacher to their children, psychologist Inocencio said. “If it affects the effective discharge of your professional duties, then the company has the responsibility to take part in your recovery.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals interviewed.