Rise of Mental Health Related Illnesses The Aftermath Covid-19

By Suganthi Singam

Posted: 27th April 2020 10:19

Whilst increasingly championed as an important cause, mental health related illnesses have yet to receive the prominence it deserves. Covid-19 has ravaged the world with lasting effects economically, sociologically and now psychologically. The Movement Control Order “MCO” has brought about changes in the daily lives of the workforce, and has resulted in a profound impact to the economic and mental health of large numbers of people across Malaysia.
 
Over recent years mental health related illnesses have become a heightened and pressing issue which has gained prominence in the workplace. Whilst there is more awareness of such illnesses it is unfortunately also intertwined with a stigma associated with anyone who is diagnosed as having a mental health related illness – the result individuals fail to obtain the required help. The lack of ability or knowledge to manage employees suffering from such illnesses has resulted in the failure to address the problem at source and as such the issue remaining. A large majority of those affected by poor mental health reflects that those having physical, psychological or behavioural symptoms of poor mental health attribute work as the primary cause. Consequently training is needed to educate superiors, line managers or human resource personnel for early identification and measures implemented to resolve issues at hand. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
 
The challenges, however, presented by Covid-19 are unprecedented. Whilst the initial weeks were looked at with relief by most as an opportunity to take a step back from the demands and stress of work life, for others it was looked upon as an opportunity to spend time with their family members or to utilise the time to attend to matters which were previously on a to do list. The initial fortnight has now stretched to a period exceeding a month and with it has brought about growing concerns amongst employees as to whether there would still be a job to return to in the weeks to come or will they be faced with pay cuts or even worse unemployment. In present times, the risk of employees suffering from depression, paranoia, insecurities will be heightened and as such the need for awareness by employers to have in place measures or mechanisms to help them cope with such issues. Covid-19 has been labelled as an invisible force at work which is no different from the impact on an individual’s mental health which may not necessarily be visible outwardly but rather involves emotions or thoughts which have been brewing over a prolonged period of time.
 
This may manifest in different forms once employees return to work when the MCO is eventually lifted or for those whom have been attending work in the weeks over the period of the MCO these emotions may already be dwelling in an individual’s mind. In either instance, what is important is for those around to be cognisant of the changes in the behaviour patterns that may occur and to have the ability to provide counselling or help where required. What is clearly apparent is that it will no longer be business as usual as people will be more guarded in their movements with social distancing being key.
 
On the part of employers it would be prudent to have in place policies or guidelines to minimise the need for large scale meetings or town hall sessions and instead resort to technology to minimise contact, a confidential helpline for those having mental health related issues and having the workforce split into teams with rotational weeks. Hence where possible some employers may choose to embrace a rotational shift system where Team A would come in for the first fortnight with the remaining team B working from home and thereafter the teams would switch around. This model may not necessarily cater to all as no one size fits all but it’s a step towards making a difference. Similarly organisations will start having to think out of the box to cater towards the evolving needs of not only the business but the employees as well. A delicate balancing of interests is at the foundation of any lasting employment relationship.
 
From a perspective of retrenchments where previously employers would look at providing outplacement services and testimonials this may no longer be sufficient from a holistic approach. Most employers have provided retrenchment benefits where the financial liquidity of the Company permits it to do so however not all may be able to provide the same in present day given the impact towards the loss of revenue with the closures or cessation of operations that have occurred during the period of the MCO .
 
For those not encompassed under the purview of the Employment Act 1955, there is no statutory requirement to provide retrenchment benefits and in the absence of contractual provisions to do so there is no obligation on the employer to provide for the same. However this is not in accord with good labour practices. Given that the situation is dire for many, at the very minimum employers could emulate the benefits stipulated under the Employment Act 1955 in efforts at striking the balance to be maintained between those who served the organisation and the need for survival of the business.
 
There are several organisations that provide counselling services on a complimentary basis and employers should avail themselves of such services to be extended to their employees who are affected by the retrenchment exercise. This encompasses counselling for those who are unable to cope with the mental stress that unemployment brings. In what was once an employee’s market, the situation no longer holds true. In this respect, employees should equally recognise the need to be flexible to accommodate to the changing needs of the organisation and business to equip themselves with additional skills set to adapt to the evolving structure. The mental health and wellbeing of the employees who are the backbone of any organisation must be given the prominence it deserves particularly in these trying times. Who better than the employers to champion the cause?

Ms. Suganthi Singam specialises in the field of employment and immigration law and attends to matters at all tiers in the Labour Court, Industrial Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court. Her area of work ranges from inbound applications for employment and professional visit permits, mergers and acquisitions, retrenchment, sexual harassment at the workplace, domestic inquiry proceedings and other subject matters related to employment and immigration practice. Apart from advisory services, she has also presented various papers on current issues and developments in the field of employment law at several seminars as well as conducted in house training sessions for the firm’s corporate clients.

Ms. Singam obtained her Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from the University of Manchester in 1994. She obtained a Masters qualification in Law from the University of Malaya in 2004. She has been with the firm since her admission to the Malaysian Bar in 1996. She presently heads the immigration practice.

Ms. Suganthi Singam can be contacted on +603 2027 2829 or by email at suganthi@shearndelamore.com

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