​Top In Tech: Mental health in the age of social distancing

  • Harder to connect emotionally through PC screen & understand mental state
  • Learning to say, No, important aspect to setting boundaries, creating ‘space’

​Top In Tech: Mental health in the age of social distancing

“The starkest reality for a lot of people during lockdown is that they’ve met themselves for the first time,” shared consultant clinical psychologist, Paul Jambunathan, of Paul J Psychology Consultancy, in a recent Top In Tech session jointly organised by Digital News Asia, Malaysiakini and ScaleUp Malaysia. “That has been a very important challenge that has flowed into interpersonal relationships, working from home and everything else.”

Over the past year of pandemic-stricken lockdown, technology has been the thread keeping the world together at its seams. The need for technology infusion into essential services such as health and education sectors are more pronounced than ever before. In the session titled “Physical & Mental Health through Tech” on February 26, the chief executive officer of digital mental health platform ThoughtFull, Joan Low and chief customer and marketing officer of Prudential Assurance Malaysia Behd, Eric Wong, representing its healthcare app, Pulse, also shared their input.

Given the quick large scale shift to remote working in 2020, the conversation steered heavily towards the more relevant issue of mental health despite the topic of the session. For ThoughtFull, the shift meant accelerating the launch of its subscription based ThoughtFullChat App that enables bite-sized coaching with certified mental health professionals.

“We were supposed to launch in the later part of 2020 but really once lockdown came in, demand on both the users’ end and professional side surged because you have counsellors who all of a sudden can’t see their clients. That was a really big push factor,” said Joan.

“All of a sudden, corporates realised they need to take care of their people [who were facing] tremendous stress. We even signed on our first corporate client before the app was live which is testament to the acute need of the circumstances we are in now.”

For Prudential, helping their customers pivot to its digital channels was important to ensure good customer service despite branch closures. But in addition to this change, Eric highlighted that interaction with his team members changed dramatically. It became harder to connect to his team emotionally through the computer screen and understand their mental state. “How do you know if someone is alright? When you see people physically, you may be able to tell by body language or their smile,” he said, adding that virtual activities such as quizzes and a virtual Christmas party were helpful.


Increasing mental health awareness and managing burnout

Although the dip in physical interactions has led to more dialogue about mental health in public forums, there is still a need for more awareness among Malaysians. Policy change is necessary but Paul expressed his frustration at the slow pace or lack of movement in the area. Instead, he emphasised the need for a vertical approach to raising awareness from the grassroots level.

“I am calling for all practitioners, educators and anyone sensitive enough to understand what applied psychology is about to learn,” said Paul. “It should be integrated in everything that we do - not just the health system. It’s got to be in the education system, sports system - everywhere. And now they have started television education called Didik TV. They should have [mental health awareness] there too because the young are actually watching.”

During the session, an audience member asked for advice about how startup founders can handle burnout. Being a startup founder, Joan addressed the question by first talking about the pressures they face. “There is tremendous pressure to always be at your best even when you are running on four hours of sleep. Physical boundaries also start blurring. There are no more weekends and it truly becomes all encompassing.”

She also explains that psychological boundaries start blurring. “Founders start embodying their company. Their self-worth and image is tied so much to what they are building. That is why 70% of startup founders actually do face some sort of mental health challenge. In Malaysian context, the statistic is 1 in 3 founders.”

To help founders recuperate, Joan stressed on the importance of boundaries. “Have control over your calendar and schedule rest. As for psychological boundaries, we are not just our companies. We are multifaceted. We have our families and our own identity. Surround yourself with good people and never be afraid to have that thoughtful chat.”

Meanwhile, there is an irony in the rise of digital health services when technology is a known source of stress. “Too much of anything is a bad thing. If you cross the boundary of functionality and optimal usage, then it is going to be bad,” said Paul, adding the importance of finding the right balance.

With working at home being the norm in 2021 for most corporates, work-life balance of employees has certainly changed whether for better or worse. As for whether Prudential has helped create greater balance for its employees compared to its peers, Eric candidly responded: “I am not sure if we are doing a better job. But one of the things I’ve been talking to my team members about is learning to say no.”

“For some reason, when working from home, we have a lot more invitations for meetings. People assume we are available at all times. One of the things we are having to do is say no to meetings for certain timings. I took it upon myself to lead the charge and tell my team members that it is not okay to get an invitation for 1pm, for instance, which is usually lunchtime,” he explained.

Eric’s advice to people managers in the current circumstance is to be human first before being an employee. “Spend time separating your key performance indicators (KPIs) and start to demonstrate care by talking to your team.”

Meanwhile Paul believes that we can all help ourselves, demonstrate care for ourselves by imbuing five senses into our daily lives. It his akin to his vaccine to prevent mental health issues. The senses are:

Sense of Spirituality – Describing it as a sense we must have, “Develop it, understand it,” he urges.

Sense of Responsibility – Be responsible for what you do, the consequences of your actions, responsible for yourselves and those around you.

Sense of Reality – whatever we do, be well-founded and grounded. “Be real,” he implores.

Common Sense – “A very rare sense” in his view, one that cannot be bought, he urges everyone to develop this.

Sense of Humor (probably his most important) – “If you cannot laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at anybody,” he declares, encouraging everyone to develop a sense of humor and “laugh and laugh and laugh.”

With vaccines already rolling out in Malaysia, and hope in the air, Jambu’s 5 Senses, as he describes them, could well be the added booster everyone will be well served by, if adopted.



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