University stress
The cost of burnout is no longer just emotional. The global economy loses $1 trillion a year in productivity as a result of depression and anxiety. Image Credit: Pexels

February can feel like no man’s land. The holidays are over and the weather is crummy.

The gentlest iPhone chime sounds like a bugle call in the morning and you need two Americanos to have a civil conversation.

Over the past week or so, you’ve been holed up in your cramped apartment and your inbox is overflowing with alerts about the spread of a deadly virus.

Like 84 per cent of the population, you’re probably stressed, according to a recent study by Cigna Corp. and Asia Care Group.

A trillion and counting

The cost of burnout is no longer just emotional. The global economy loses $1 trillion a year in productivity as a result of depression and anxiety, the World Health Organisation found.

While the US puts $133.2 billion, or 4 per cent of its annual health expenditure, toward treatment, that proportion reaches 19 per cent in Australia, 18 per cent in Singapore and 17.6 per cent in Hong Kong, Cigna says.

The good news is that there’s a solution, and it’s cheap. The bad news is that it’s difficult. After years of considering mental health to be a personal affliction, focus is turning to the role employers can play.

The type of changes needed — better communication and support from managers, for example — require a shift in attitude more than financial resources. In Asia, however, the very wokefulness that’s made mental health a priority for Fortune 500 CEOs and US presidential candidates is uncomfortable territory.

“My family never, ever talked about this topic. It’s a taboo,” said Deborah Seah, a 38-year-old Singaporean who lived with bipolar disorder for more than two decades before it was diagnosed.

Being ‘always on’

More than 90 per cent of people in Asia say they’re stressed, and eight out of 10 feel like they operate in an “always on” culture.

These can be early symptoms of burnout, which is marked by chronic exhaustion, cynicism and detachment from your work, as well as feelings of ineffectiveness.

Seah experienced her first burnout episode in 2016, while working at an academic institution. She recalls the rising levels of stress as managers kept pushing work on her plate.

Her husband begged her to quit her job, but she couldn’t let go: “I didn’t want to give up my career,” she said. Seah eventually admitted herself to Singapore’s mental-health institute when she began to feel suicidal. Successive burnout episodes were equally dramatic, with daily panic attacks, hot and cold flashes, uncontrollable shivering and the inability to get out of bed.

Sheer inflexibility of it

Beyond social stigmas, Asia’s often inflexible work culture can be a hurdle, too. In a recent survey of Hong Kong employees by Deacons, a law firm, 65 per cent of respondents cited long hours as their primary concern, closely followed by “domineering” senior management and uncommunicative bosses.

The trouble is, even flexible work arrangements have their pitfalls.

In 2018, Gallup Inc., a market-research company, looked at the main causes of burnout, as well as what employers and managers can do. What’s striking is how simple some of the solutions appear to be: Employees whose managers are willing to listen to their work-related problems are 62 per cent less likely to be burned out, and those who have the opportunity to do projects where they excel are 57 per cent less likely to experience frequent episodes, the study found.

Does a trillion-dollar problem really come down to intangibles such as making work purposeful, promoting teamwork and giving positive feedback?

Support system

Seah, the Singaporean, eventually left her job, and now works as an executive assistant at Oracle Corp. In her application, she included her volunteer work as an ambassador at “Beyond the Label”, a government initiative to raise awareness about mental health. Seah marvels at the California-based company’s openness to her condition and the willingness to let her work from home.

“The approach and attitude of my manager makes a whole world of difference.”

The workplaces of the future should not only better equip its managers with soft skills, but give employees the time and space to care for themselves. Think about it: With people working well into their 70s, careers can plausibly span half a century; a recent study puts the age of peak unhappiness smack in the middle, at 47.2.

The key to heading off burnout, then, may be clearing your calendar. The “Wall Street Journal” recently chronicled the experience of one insurance executive who took a two-year sabbatical. The break actually accelerated her progress: She returned to work and became a CEO.

For those who can’t afford to put their paychecks on pause, even mini breaks or meditation can help. One Singaporean-based app, MindFi, has breathing exercises that even allow skeptics like me to keep their eyes open. Managing stress this way should be natural in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.

After all, “Asia is the home of meditation,” says Bjorn Lee, MindFi’s founder. “What happened?”

There’s perhaps no better time to put these tools to work. The spread of the coronavirus has produced stress triggers that are both extraordinary (with thousands of confirmed cases) and mundane (it’s more difficult to get your Starbucks coffee).

With millions of people on lockdown, companies from HSBC Holdings Plc to Facebook Inc. have asked staff to work from home. The novelty of wearing your pyjamas all day can wear off quickly when you’re squinting at a tiny laptop screen and keeping your toddler’s sticky fingers off the keyboard.

But if you’re safe and virus-free, this could be a welcome opportunity for a deep breath. A baby showed up on one of my video conferences last week — I can’t imagine I’m the only one who cracked a smile.