As the world continues to fight COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) has urged countries to strengthen their initiatives for nurturing the mental health and well-being of their citizens. In a policy brief released last May 13, the UN cautions that the pandemic, though primarily a physical health crisis, has the “seeds of a major mental health crisis.” Secretary-General António Guterres underscores the crucial role of everybody—from civil society, health authorities, to national governments—in addressing the mental health dimension of COVID-19.
Guterres’ call to action is a complex task. Attitudes toward mental health must change from an individual level to an institutional and national level. Moreover, countries are at different progress levels in terms of mental health laws and, more importantly, COVID-19 management. Nations with excellent quarantine programs are in a better position to address the mental consequences of the pandemic, compared to countries who fall behind.
Admittedly, the Philippines needs to work double-time in managing COVID-19 and strengthening our mental health infrastructure. Unfortunately, the vague communications surrounding the pandemic response, the ever-changing language and terms, and the odd press briefing hours stress people out even more.
“Empathy is the most important shape that our communications and even our new policies should take. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. The emotions are new. The systems are new,” says Senator Risa Hontiveros. “We have to be honest and clear about our data and communicate them with empathy; time is of the essence, as is the public’s mental health.”
On the mental health side, however, there are glimpses of hope—the senator’s Mental Health Law, efforts from advocacy groups, and the rise of teletherapy services are saving graces in a country whose national mental health initiatives are still underfunded, treatment-focused, hospital-centered, relatively inaccessible, and stigmatized.
For this piece, as mental health cuts across all sectors of society, ANCX decided to investigate strategies on fortifying mental health for employees in the private sector. We spoke with medical professionals and mental health advocates to tackle the issues at the individual, company-wide, and national level.
Acknowledge your stressors and coping mechanisms
“We have to understand that mental health isn’t just about disorders or illnesses. It encompasses everything about our ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving,” explains Dr. Ronald Del Castillo, PsyD, MPH of Diwa Mental Health, in a webinar. “For instance, just because I do not have depression doesn’t mean that I have optimum mental health. Many factors, from our temperaments, immediate family and community, public health approaches to mental health, and socio-cultural influences, affect how we think, feel, and behave.” Dr. Del Castillo reiterates that it is important to frame mental health in this way to address the potential short-term and long-term issues caused by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 hit us by surprise, and negative feelings are expected from the abrupt changes in the way we work and live. It is okay to acknowledge negative emotions and personal stressors as a first step toward self-care,” assures mental health advocate Dr. Gia Sison. “The pandemic itself is already a stressor, and it gives rise to other stressful scenarios.” She notes that the fear of getting the disease, job uncertainty, loneliness during quarantine, domestic abuse and violence, exposure to negative media, and unhealthy coping mechanisms are some situations that can further knock down one’s well-being, or even aggravate existing mental health conditions.
it is also important to assess how well-equipped we are to handle stress. “At the fundamental level, ask yourself: how strong am I mentally to deal with chaos? How shaken am I right now? How skilled am I to go back to my center, to a calm state?” explains Charmaine Cu-Unjieng, executive director of the International Association for Human Values Foundation (Philippines), Inc. “We feel stress whenever we are not in control—just like most of us now in this pandemic. As a result, we feel anxious and fearful of what lies ahead, and we lose our peace of mind. In this disturbed state, we aren’t able to make clear and objective decisions.”
Cu-Unjieng explains that basic breathing techniques help an individual release stress and return to a calm state. She teaches these methods across various groups—at IAHV, Cu-Unjieng reaches out to people affected by disasters, conflict, and violence; in the Art of Living Foundation, she focuses on teaching stress management techniques to the general public. “You have to work with something tangible. Trying to control your mind will just stress you out further. When you work with your breath—something you can readily regulate—you are able to ground yourself to the present moment and calm yourself down.”
Echoing the principle of staying present, Dr. del Castillo also recommends the practice of grounding. “Whenever you feel anxious and overwhelmed, name five things you see, four things you touch, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. This exercise brings your awareness to the present moment, helping you calm down.”
Kana Takahashi, CEO of mental health systems company MindNation, also recommends designating a specific “worry time” each day. “Some professionals recommend this cognitive technique for us to acknowledge our worries and create boundaries that separate us from them. This may help us carry on with the rest of our day,” she says.
Maintaining mental health while working at home
While some employees continue to work from home (WFH), others have returned to their offices amid lighter quarantine restrictions. Regardless, employees, higher-ups, and companies must work together to create a conducive working environment that encourages conversations on mental health, opens easier communication lines among team mates and supervisors, and provides support for one’s physical and mental needs.
Dr. Trina de la Llana, M.D. lead psychiatrist at Mindcare Club, reiterates that teams need to follow consistent boundaries and work schedules. “If you’re working from home, stick to a specific workplace that’s free from distractions. Communicate with your family members that certain parts of the day will be spent for work, but also tell your fellow employees to respect your family time,” she says.
Dr. de la Llana even thinks that recreating coffee breaks or lunch periods with colleagues at home can help employees gain a semblance of stability. “Creative tactics like doing lunch video calls with colleagues may help keep team morale up. You get reminded that you’re not alone in this unprecedented work set-up,” she says. “Moreover, it promotes openness and communication among team members. Many employees have their trusted work friends or wish to interact more with certain office mates, so this can be a good chance for those opportunities.”
Pia Lina, MA, RPsy, director for Public Workshops and Practitioner Development at the Ateneo Bulatao Center, also recommends creating “transition rituals.” “In a normal work environment, we prepare in the morning, travel to and from the office, and decompress at the end of the day. Since WFH has erased most of those steps, we can create a set of activities that mark the start and end of a workday at home. In a way, you are creating a space where you have control and are able to focus on the present,” the director explains. A morning “transition ritual” can be as simple as showering and dressing up for work at home, or setting up a designated space with specific work items (a work laptop, office files, notebooks and writing tools, etc.). The evening “transition ritual” can then involve storing work materials at the end of the day, getting out of your office clothes, and shutting off work notifications.
In terms of leadership, Lina notes that managers must be crystal-clear and streamlined with their to-do lists and expectations for the team. “Supervisors must know how to center themselves first and recognize their own emotions. Then, they can listen empathically, communicate clearly, and respond to employee concerns with a level mind. When everyone in the team is able to make clear and sound decisions, they set themselves up for a good future, and they are able to handle unprecedented stressors better,” she adds.
Dr. de la Llana also reminds leaders to be more flexible and open with their teams. “With some employees facing both domestic demands and work deliverables at home, managers can explore easing some requirements to fit the unique situations of their employees. However, they should remind everyone that there are still non-negotiable standards for one’s output and work conduct. It’s important for everyone to be on the same page.”
“Leaders also need to be sensitive with how changes in environments, routines, and ways of working may affect different personality types” says Vic Catanghal, senior manager for Learning and Development at TELUS International Philippines. “We must now learn how to enable different types of team members and allow them to thrive despite changes and uncertainties. Also, It’s equally important to provide the complete tools, infrastructure, and systems—across HR, workforce, IT, communications, and training—to maintain productivity.”
Revisiting mental health initiatives
On February 11, 2020, the Department of Labor and Employment posted Department Order 208, which mandates the private sector to implement mental health workplace policies and programs. While this is a significant step, existing financial, cultural, and logistical barriers hinder the successful implementation of the order across various companies. The COVID-19 pandemic further adds to the challenges, though it also underscores the urgency of constructing mental health systems in the workplace.
“Right now, MindNation is focused on creating safe spaces for everyone, especially in the workplace. We are pushing to eliminate the stigma of mental health in our companies and organizations,” says Takahashi. “I believe that business owners and bosses should take the first step in investing in their teams. The core of your business is your people, so we should take care of them.”
The director notes that organizations with budget constraints may readily access materials from reputable sources online. “On Facebook, the Ateneo Bulatao Center constantly publishes infographics and guidelines for mindfulness practices. Other centers also have their own resource materials. Groups can start by sharing these tips, encouraging conversations, and acknowledging the importance of mental health.”
“Companies have been asking the Bulatao Center for seminars on psychological first aid and talks on understanding different kinds of stress,” Lina shares. The director is hopeful that this wave of concern and curiosity on mental health initiatives can cascade across employees, their families, and immediate communities.
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However, Hontiveros acknowledges that more creativity and infrastructures are needed to meet high demand for mental health services. “While teletherapy has become widely available, it is still in its early stages. Social media has also been helpful, but we still face the challenge of reaching remote areas with little to no Internet access. Moreover, in a time of financial anxiety, we need to look for ways in which the public can avail mental health services without straining their finances further,” the senator says. “The government can look into radio and TV programs that not only educate people about the importance of mental health, but also deliver information and methods on practicing mental health hygiene, wherever they may be.”
As new programs are being studied, the lawmaker finds it crucial to mobilize community-based mental health service providers to reach more people amid and even after the pandemic. “Local government units and barangays should work in closer proximity to the public. They should be trained to handle mental health issues and programs in smaller groups that still respect our health protocols. The Department of Health should also look into capacitating contact tracers with basic mental health first aid skills so they can help look out for people with mental health issues in the community as they link cases of infection.”
Hontiveros also proposes a Mental Health Act Oversight Committee to find the gaps in law implementation and recommend how its programs can be remolded further to adapt to current and future needs. “We need a national debriefing; our COVID-19 response needs to integrate this. Psychosocial intervention is important for us to ease back into society after quarantine, especially for those who have never experienced anything collectively traumatic like this before. We need to bring these services to our frontliners, to our students, to our workers, both in urban and rural areas.”
“We should integrate these programs immediately and effectively because the public's mental health will be the foundation of the society we will ease back into once the pandemic is over. We cannot afford another pandemic in a different form,” she concludes.
If you are in need of mental health services, you may reach out to the aforementioned organizations via the following links:
- Diwa Mental Health
- International Association for Human Values Foundation Philippines (FB: @IAHVPH)
- The Art of Living Foundation (FB: @ArtOfLivingPH)
- MindNation (FB: @themindnation; Twitter: @theMindNation; IG: @themindnation)
- Mindcare Club (FB: @mindcareclub; IG: @mindcareclub)
- Ateneo Bulatao Center (FB: @BulataoCenter; Gmail: firstname.lastname@example.org)