For many months last year since the movement control order, salesman Henry Ng (not his real name), 41, has been suffering from stress and anxiety, resulting in insomnia.
Besides the restrictions of the pandemic – not being able to go out to see clients as often as he used to – Ng who is married and has three young children, aged nine, 11 and 13, has to contend with juggling family responsibilities with his wife as both of them work from home.
“We take turns to help our children with e-learning and also to monitor their daily activities, ” he says. “We also take turns to do the household chores, ” he adds.
“It’s also more difficult to close sales now than ever before because clients have tightened their budget for advertising, ” says Ng, who admits being worried about his future and supporting his family.
Read more: Are children spending too much time online?
Ng is just one of the many in people whose life has been impacted by the pandemic. Twelve thousand people were surveyed in a global study, entitled AI@Work Study 2020 by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, a human resource research company. The study found that similar to Ng, the pandemic has increased workplace stress, anxiety and burnout for people all over the world.
The study takes into account the responses of employees, managers, human resource leaders and C-level executives across 11 countries.
“This study reveals that 2020 has been one of the most stressful years in history for the global workforce, with 70% of people having more stress and anxiety at work than any other previous year, ” says Oracle Malaysia head of human capital management Rajesh Mishra.
“The pandemic has changed work as we know it – with an increase in remote work, evolving roles, and balancing work and home responsibilities simultaneously for many people. As boundaries are increasingly blurred between the personal and professional worlds, 35% of people are revealed to be working an additional 40 or more hours each month and 25% of people are burnt-out from overwork, ” he says.
"78% (of the respondents) say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, and 85% say that mental health issues at work (stress, anxiety, depression, etc) have affected home life, resulting in sleep deprivation, poor physical health, reduced happiness at home, strained family relationships, and isolation from friends, ” says Rajesh.
But he adds that despite its perceived drawbacks, 62% of people find remote work more appealing now than they did before the pandemic, because they have more time to spend with family, get work done, or even exercise and sleep.
Consistent with this, some Malaysians are taking things in stride.
Business development officer Hashim Mahmood (not his real name), 35, reveals that even though he suffers from stress and fatigue due to work, he has taken steps to manage this.
Hashim has been working from home during the MCO and conditional MCO. During the recovery MCO, he was going to office on a rotational basis, spending only a week each month in the office, while working remotely the rest of the time.
“I plan my daily schedule in detail, make sure that whenever I take time off work, I’m really off work, am more active working out in the morning, get sufficient sleep and control my diet, ” he says.
He also does household chores – cleaning washing etc – as a break from the routine of constant virtual calls and meetings.
If he has any issues at work, Hashim feels comfortable discussing it with his supervisor or colleagues.
“My team is a very close-knit group so we maintain good communication with one other. My superiors are also very understanding about the current (pandemic) situation and we always discuss to find the best way to get the job done, ” he says.
“It’s possible for organisations to ensure their employees’ well-being, productivity and mental health are taken care of, even during the pandemic, by taking a people-first approach and creating room for employees to voice out concerns and holding empathetic conversations, ” he says.
“Companies can offer their employees the resources and technologies to support their mental health. These can include self-service access to health resources, on-demand counselling services, health monitoring tools, access to wellness or meditation apps, and chat bots to answer health-related questions. They can also use technologies that provide access to quick answers and information, and digital assistants to automate routine administrative tasks, ” he adds.
Interestingly, the study reveals that workers prefer to rely on robots over humans for assistance: 68% of the respondents preferred to talk to a robot over a human colleague about stress and anxiety at work, and 82% of the respondents believe that robots can support their mental health better than humans.
“Technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), can increase employee productivity and job satisfaction, while improving overall well-being. By integrating the use of AI, 51% employees have been able to shorten their work week and even take vacations, ” says Rajesh.
“AI is already helping to improve mental health, productivity and overall well-being for 75% of the workforce. It has helped improve mental health at work by giving workers necessary information for their jobs, automating routine tasks, and reducing stress.
“This gives people more personal time to spend with their loved ones, indulge in hobbies, or rest, all of which have a positive impact on mental health, ” he explains.
The study shows that 80% of employees are open to having robots as their therapists and counsellors because of the impression that robots provide a judgement-free zone, an unbiased outlet to share their problems, and provide quick answers to questions about their health.
But Rajesh is quick to highlight that while globally, there has been an increased dependency on technology and robots to address mental health issues, it does not replace nor bypass the importance of human interaction.
“Artificial intelligence can reduce mundane routine tasks so that employees can focus, create and produce better work but it doesn’t replace nor bypass the human touch, ” says Rajesh.
“Some employees do prefer human interaction compared to relying on AI as certain qualities like leadership and creativity can’t be replicated by technology, ” he explains.
Communications consultant Elena Loh (not her real name), 26, who has been working from home since March last year, often suffers from stress, anxiety, depression and occasional insomnia.
“Sometimes, I think about work so much that it’s hard to sleep. And worrying about certain issues makes me depressed, ” admits Loh.
“To manage my work, I create a to do list, check off the items one by one as they are completed to ensure I don't miss anything out. This helps prevent me from getting anxious. Sometimes, I set email reminders too, ” she says.
“I’m fortunate because my organisation promotes a healthy working environment, so it’s easy to communicate and resolve issues, ” she adds.
“I think AI can be great in helping us to manage our workload and stress, and lead a balanced life. For example, an AI assistant can help to set reminders for us, even when to take breaks.
“And, as the line between work and home becomes blurry, AI can act as a moderator to make sure that besides working, we’re also exercising, drinking water, eating properly, and so on, ” she says.
Rajesh says that when there is the right balance between the two – technology and therapy, companies can be transformed for the better
“Helping employees overcome common challenges such as childcare struggles, video conferencing snafus, and ensuring work-life balance, cultivating a culture of inclusion and belonging, investing in critical skills that are useful no matter how an employee’s role evolves, training workers in soft skills such as communication, teamwork and empathy to respond quickly in times of tumultuous change, and integrating AI to help human workers focus on more critical work is what helps make a company successful, ” he concludes.
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