Six years of overwork as a journalist, two of them during the pandemic, Robert (not his real name) wished he were a student again when he reported about how the Omicron surge forced an academic break.
Robert, however, has begun to question the culture of overwork in media, and hopes that he be given a paid leave for his mental health, even if he's not sick with COVID-19. Like many who juggle making a living and staying alive, he 's tired and wants a break from work e-mails and chats.
"As a person who really loves interacting with people, the pandemic really took a toll on my mental health since I have been spending most of my time alone in my room, working and sleeping," he told reportr.
Sanity breaks are uncommon in their team where office culture dictates that "it's normal to overwork yourself because everyone is doing it," said Robert. Everytime he's on the cusp of asking his boss for a break, he pulls back, worrying about the burden it would bring to his team.
"Kasi kaya nga ko napagod or nawawalan ng gana mag-work ay dahil sa dami ng trabaho at issue sa opisina, then ipapasa ko pa sa kanila 'yung trabaho," he said. "In the end, I feel like I am also passing the burden and mental suffering to them. That's why I just keep it to myself."
A poor state of mental health can drag on productivity, psychologist Jojo Tandoc said, underscoring the need to strike a balance between getting the job done and looking after employees' psychological well-being when there's loss, sickness, and death all around.
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Why you, the employee, need a mental health break
Employees look to escape the daily grind to deal with what the World Health Organization called a "silent pandemic of mental stress". Under existing set-ups, the only way to do this is to call in sick or file for a vacation leave.
Closer to home, two out of 25 Filipinos employees have suicidal thoughts, with COVID-19 fears as their main trigger, based on a MindNation 2020 survey of over 6,000 workers.
Despite the passage of the country's first mental health law in 2018, people who suffer from psychological troubles like depression are still stigmatized, Tandoc said. "You can notice that in the way they still look at people with mental health issues as... may sayad, maluwag tornilyo, baliw."
Filipino employees have no mental health leave credits even during the public health emergency. Two bills seeking such a break have languished at the committee level at the House of Representatives since 2020.
Failure to address the need for a mental health leave can reduce productivity and drive some to quit, MindNation said.
Institutionalizing a mental health leave acknowledges the importance of a person's well-being, instead of setting it aside in favor of physical sicknesses, said Tandoc.
"If you don't feel well because namatayan ka, you need time to grieve because you are depressed. You need some time to recover. Kahit sabihin natin nag-break sila ng boyfriend nila o ng kanilang partner, you know that impacts the mental well-being of the employee, kahit pumasok 'yan alam naman natin na absent-minded 'yan, hindi naka-focus ang tao."
What can your boss do?
Tandoc, who is also a human resource and organization development professional, said HR personnel should be equipped to diagnose or identify mental health issues among workers so companies can respond properly.
Some companies he worked with have initiated employee assistance programs for stress and anxiety management. Managers are also looped in. "'Pag may awareness kasi ang bosses about these issues, they will realize, 'oo nga dapat ba tinatawagan ko mga staff ko during weekends o wee hours?'"
To accommodate mental breaks, he said some companies redefined policies on what it means to be sick so they could avail of sick leaves, he said. By doing so, it fosters a healthy relationship between employers and employees, who won't have to lie to use their sick leaves only to be seen outside spending time with their kids.
"You have to talk to your immediate boss about your situation, explain the circumstances para maintindihan ka nila," he said. When it fails, talk to your HR, he said.
While employees await the law to mandate mental health breaks, Tandoc said employees should be aware of staying mentally well by being physically well. This includes alloting relaxation time, having a good night's sleep, connecting with loved ones even via Zoom, and eating a healthy meal.
"We have to be patient and tolerant with each other. Let's take this opportunity to reflect and better our relationships with each other."
Clinical psychologist and human resources professional Jojo Tandoc is one of GrayMatters Psychological and Consultancy's licensed consultants for organizational development, capacity and culture building, and coaching and mentoring programs. Visit this page for his services.