Over the past year, we have seen mental health issues on the rise as people get to grips with new ways of living during a health crisis.
For many, this has meant looking after their families while juggling new work-from-home norms, including navigating new technologies for the first time, often spending many hours in front of a screen.
All of this has given rise to increased stress levels and a sense of being overwhelmed trying to deal with important commitments. Throw in the unhelpful message that “more time at home means greater productivity” and it’s no wonder people are still struggling one year on since the Covid-19 outbreak began.
One common (and worrying) concern I’ve been hearing from clients and friends is that they feel guilty for “not doing enough”. These are people who have full-time jobs while tending to homeschooling their kids, making time for their relationships, and of course finding time for self-care lest they feel the additional guilt of neglecting themselves in the process.
I’ve listened to people as they describe their “laziness” and how they feel “so unmotivated” to do anything after their day is done. In times before the ubiquitous message to grind till we drop, being unmotivated and lazy was better known as taking the time to rest when tired. One friend justified their self-criticism by offering the pseudo-profound and oft-punted maxim that “We all have the same 24 hours”. The idea is that since we all have the same amount of time in a day, there’s no excuse not to learn, hustle, achieve, and succeed.
On one social media platform, a business executive provided his own spin to say that “We have exactly the same time in a day as did Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albert Einstein.” Such comparisons are silly idealism. Jefferson enjoyed an exceptionally privileged life, and neither da Vinci nor Einstein had many dealings with daily housework, seeing to kids’ homeschooling, or attending several Zoom calls in a day. The pressures and demands of modern life far outweigh those of times gone by.
While comparisons in general are unhelpful to our well-being (everybody has different circumstances), it’s quite the display of privilege to suggest that anyone can achieve as much as the exceptional, brilliant minds of yesteryear if only they’d try a bit harder.
My colleague, Dr Eugene Tee, has a wonderful expression: “We are 1.0 systems operating in 6.0 environments.” As the pace of life quickens and becomes more complex over time, our brains aren’t so quick to adjust, so it’s a struggle to keep pace with social and technological advances. It’s difficult not to be moved when people describe their tiredness and need for rest in terms of being unmotivated and lazy.
As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold and “new norms” quickly set in, people were expected to adapt to all kinds of new challenges, not realising that, psychologically, they’re still working to understand what’s happening not to mention trying to keep themselves and their families safe.
Everything moves quickly and many struggle to keep up, thinking themselves lazy for it. And yet, even younger, tech-savvy people have been feeling the strain of stress, depression, anxiety and loneliness in the past year.
How did we reach the point that to rest and take time off was seen as being lazy or not trying hard enough? Much of the time, I find myself reminding clients that they are showing up and doing their best on so many levels every day. Those two hours of watching TV or vegging out with a good movie isn’t laziness or avoidance – they’re part of well-earned rests in between seeing to daily commitments.
Of course, if these behaviours come at the expense of our commitments then there might be an issue to address. But unless 10km runs or building “side hustles” in your spare time is your thing, there is no shame whatsoever in resting, taking time out or – heaven forbid – taking a day or two off during weekends to do nothing in particular.
There’s a great deal of talk about the need to tackle mental health issues in Malaysia, and stress-related issues rank high on the list. Perhaps we can start by easing up on the implied message that if we’re not working till we drop, we’re somehow not doing enough. Such a message is as dangerous as it is absurd.
Better than meditation classes or yoga exercises at work, it would make a huge difference if business leaders were to invest in their people’s well-being by proactively respecting personal time and boundaries. Like any preventative health measure, actively encouraging people to spend physical and psychological time away from work will help to reduce stress and anxiety if people feel they can rest, relax, and recharge their batteries however they choose. The work will always be with us, but our health is a finite resource and no-one should feel guilty about prioritising their well-being.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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