Play is a critical part of a child’s development from birth. It boosts healthy brain development that is conducive for physical, cognitive, and emotional growth. It encourages imagination and creativity, and improves social skills and confidence. It is therefore not surprising that psychologists realised its power and tapped into it as an instrument of healing.
Challenges are a part of life. But in childhood, they can be harsher as children haven’t developed the capability to understand or deal with what they are going through. In their tender minds, loss or pain could be something as small (to an adult) as a broken favourite toy and range up to a major loss in the forms of death, separation from a loved one, hospitalization, abuse or other personal/family crises. While some children might manage to some extent by voicing their displeasure or through negative behaviours, others might just suppress their emotions. If the setbacks are beyond the coping skills of the child, the trauma can manifest as psychological or emotional disorders.
Parents often ask how they can know if their child needs counselling. Some signs could be that the child is being more angry, nervous, defiant, sad, or withdrawn than usual, or than is reasonable. The child could also be showing changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a decrease in school grades or reduced interest in previously favoured activities. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution and seek help.
Play therapy is one of the prominent forms of therapy for children and is practised by a variety of mental health professionals, like counsellors, psychotherapists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. It is an intervention which allows children who are experiencing emotional or behavioural issues to open up their emotions in the safe space of the ‘playroom’. They are given toys to play with, and the children play as they wish, without feeling interrogated or threatened. For the children themselves, play (therapy) is familiar and fun and they are thus able to work out their undesirable experiences and resolve their emotional and behavioural difficulties. What materials the child chooses to play with and how they play all have meaning. The therapist watches their play to get an insight into their emotional or mental health problems.
Depending on the issues faced by the child and their own training, therapists conduct non-directed or directed play therapy and provide play materials accordingly. Non directed play therapy is free-play and very similar to the free association of adult psychodynamic therapy. While in the latter adult clients are allowed to talk and ventilate to gain insight and resolve their problems, free play with limited conditions and guidelines, allows the child to express their feelings just through their play. Their verbal expression might or might not be as important.
Directed play therapy includes more structure and guidance by the therapist and several techniques are used to purposefully engage the child. These could be engaging in play with the child themselves or suggesting new topics, themes for play. Parents might or might not be included in the sessions. Materials may include art and craft materials, sand and water, clay, dolls, toys, blocks, a family of dolls, miniature figures, animals, musical instruments, puppets and books. While traditionally Play therapy is considered to be beneficial for children ages 3 to 12, it has been modified and customised by researchers and therapists to help adolescents and adults also, and some mental health practitioners have started including video games as therapeutic tools. Apart from being used at counselling centres, play therapy is also being used at critical-incident settings, such as hospitals and domestic violence shelters to help children deal with deep issues.
In regular lives, parents can encourage their kids to play indoors and outdoors and especially in nature. Lawrence J. Cohen has created an approach called ‘Playful Parenting’, in which parents are encouraged to connect playfully with their children through silliness, laughter, and roughhousing to enhance relationships and general well being.
Challenges are a part of life. While the purpose of therapy is to solve problems, playing for the sake of fun can prevent them. This can be applied not only for children but for the inner child in every individual to make life happier and more meaningful. As the proverb goes – All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
When the ‘circuit-breaker’ measures were put in place, there is no doubt that our lives have been drastically impacted. Even travelling to work or school – what was once considered a part of our daily routine – is no longer the same. Rules and regulations are put in place too, such as the wearing of a mask is now deemed mandatory and not being able to speak onboard public transports. With such increasing obstacles, it is unfair if we do not acknowledge the effort Singaporeans have put in to manage and cope with these disruptions to our daily routines. While we have moved into the phased circuit breaker emergence period, it may be still some time before we can resume our normal lives.
To cope with being house-bound, some of us have chosen to take on a new hobby or to learn a new skill to pass time and keep ourselves engaged. Others have embarked on some self-reflection and have come to realise that they had taken their past freedom for granted. Whichever the case, we are all trying to keep ourselves mentally healthy in different ways, and this in itself is commendable.
However, with the recent announcements of the circuit breaker emergence phases, this may have once again taken a toll on people’s mental health, with their sense of relief that it’s ending being diminished abruptly. In light of this, we need to help each other ride through these challenging times as circuit breaker measures continue on. Here are some simple tips to help you keep yourself sane, and to adjust to the new “norm”.
First of all, start being grateful for your privileges in life. Gratitude will give you a sense of hope amidst these trying times, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are many things to be grateful for, such as the increased connection and bonding with your friends and family. As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder. Have you found yourself wanting to reach out to others more than ever, be it through the phone or video conferencing platforms? Do you appreciate that you are not just stuck at home, but that you have a home that provides comfort, safety and security? During these times, also be grateful and appreciate that you are in good health. For those of you who are feeling artsy, perhaps you can create a gratitude vision board. Whenever you are feeling down in the dumps, write notes of affirmation or gratitude and decorate your walls. Take a look at them and remind yourself of the little things in life that keep you whole.
Another tip that is often overlooked is to set goals and a fixed routine. For some of us, staying at home is an excuse to idle, especially if you are not working from home or waiting for HBL to start. Contrary to what people think, that there is nothing much to do at home, there are in fact many activities that we can keep ourselves busy with. Make time for indoor exercise routines, do online crossword puzzles, read books, hang out with your friends on online platforms – you name it. Try setting weekly goals and track your progression too, and don’t forget to reward yourself for every milestone achieved. Believe it or not, stimulating your mind can definitely help reduce feelings of helplessness and to deal with cabin fever.
Singaporeans spend most of their time at their workplaces, and in some sense, their workplace is their second home, and now, their workplace could be their home. How do we consider our colleagues? Are they like family to us? Are we working in a supportive environment?
Many a time, the workplace health and mental well-being of employees are compromised as business organisations focus on driving revenues and profits with little attention to safety, health and wellness of the staff. The impact of these is the negative effect on job-related attitude and job performance. In some instances, some workers may develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression over time if they are too overwhelmed. As such, there is an increasing need for employers to acknowledge the positive correlation between having good mental health in their workers and the productivity and success of the business.
Across all workplaces, we need to step up and start considering ‘wrap-around strategies’ to counter the negative effects of excessive work on employees’ mental health, one of which includes unhealthy stress levels especially when it’s so easy to blur the boundaries of work and personal time while we work from home. Organisations usually conduct one-off mental health awareness programmes as an attempt to spread awareness among employees in the hope of reducing the occurrence of mental health issues. However, by making these awareness programmes an annual occurrence, employees tend to find it a dread, and the messages no longer get through to them as effectively. On the other hand, how many employees would attend the programme if it were to be on a voluntary basis? Many companies are aware of this but are still trying to find the right balance between promoting mental wellbeing and business sustainability.
Employers and HR practitioners have to accept that mental health issues are more often than not deep-rooted, and cannot be solved easily with such band-aid solutions (as most people would expect). This calls for wrap-around strategies, which would mean tackling mental health issues at the fundamental level and preventing problems from cropping up in the first place. It is in no one’s interests to try tackling the situation only when things get out of hand.
Having the right mindset and attitude is pivotal. We need to start thinking of our employees as our very own family members. If so, what can we do to make them happy? Do we have a framework for a healthy workplace? Are there plans in place to provide employees with the necessary support? For one, organisations can take the first step to introduce more flexibility into the workplace, with working from home being a mandatory option these days, it is the most opportune moment to reframe workflow processes for the longer term. This includes creating a flatter hierarchy, where there are fewer layers of management and less formal divisions between the higher-ups and the rest of the staff. Employees will thus be more involved in decision-making processes, creating a greater sense of ownership and accountability. The greater involvement of staff in the organisation will allow them to develop into more confident and capable workers, as well as enhance employee satisfaction. With greater employee satisfaction comes a greater sense of empowerment and motivation – factors that are crucial towards the productivity of the organisation.
Do we need to start thinking of what are the overlooked essentials of employee wellbeing? In your organisation, what is the decision-making process (in terms of policies and other forms of red tape) like? At present, most workplaces have a ‘top-down’ approach, where decisions are made by the senior management of the organisation and information is then cascaded downwards to the lower levels. In such cases, the staff are not given a voice and have no contribution to any of the decision-making processes. In contrast, when employees are given a chance to contribute their ideas, this encourages employee engagement and motivates them to put in greater efforts to overcome challenges. In turn, employees will certainly gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Hence, while it is true that not all work-related decisions can be made by the middle or lower tier of the corporate hierarchy, organisations should allow employees some level of discretion and autonomy to provide feedback or inputs to the decision-making process where possible. Organisations that succeed at providing the autonomy, social connections and support to their employees are better able to foster physical and mental well-being.
Needless to say, a flatter organisation would be counter-productive if the supervisors or senior management are unwilling to let go of micro-management and to show care for their employees. Managers and supervisors should start making an effort to check in with their subordinates and to ensure that they are coping well with their workload. Moreover, this should occur frequently, rather than being a one-off occurrence. Perhaps the head of each department could act as a “Welfare Ambassador”, and check-in with the employees within the same department. Getting to know the people in the same team better will allow them to identify any mental health symptoms, no matter how small. One way to get it started would be to allocate mini bonding sessions daily, each lasting approximately 15 minutes (even if it is just a short video call check-in). During this time, take turns to talk about your day, or about any difficulties that you may be encountering. relationships and social support with co-workers can improve emotional connections and ease any mental stress and burden. Such baby steps will help develop the camaraderie among teams and improve everyone’s overall well-being in the long-run. However, Managers do need to take note that they are not professional counsellors and would need to draw healthy boundaries for themselves so as to not be overwhelmed by the transference of emotional issues. Learn to, for your own safety of boundaries, to openly and healthily bring up the subject of steering an emotionally and/or mentally troubled employee to seek professional help. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help.
Organisational structure aside, it is also important to ensure that the workplace has a conducive environment – one that fosters overall well-being of the staff. All work and no play will eventually take a toll on the employees’ health, both mentally and physically. If space constraint is not a problem, try allocating a room for staff to take short mental breaks. In other words, have a “chill” room! Do take note that this should be a separate space from the staff pantry, where employees usually have their meals or to grab a quick drink. Mental-break rooms, on the other hand, can be used for socialising or for employees to take a short rest. Such a room can be decorated in an informal style, with more comfortable furniture. There is absolutely no harm in placing a few beanbags or some sort for employees to relax on whenever they feel overwhelmed by their hectic schedules. For those working at home, perhaps remind them to take mental health breaks. HR could schedule it into company calendars as a reminder and these small steps could foster greater trust between employees and the company. Trust that their welfare is being considered in decisions and that they are not just a tool or a means to the company’s bottom line, but a life that they now also have a responsibility to steward.
In short, mental well-being is important for a productive workforce and a healthy workplace.We need to create an environment where employees feel welcomed and safe. Workplace mental health is not – and should not be – an issue that we sweep under the rug. We need to acknowledge that providing support to the colleagues around us holds great importance and that we cannot simply cast them aside, leaving them to deal with their troubles alone. Ultimately, assisting your employees and ensuring they have the best mental health support will go a long way.
Is there a reason why these virtual meetings are so exhausting? How is video calling different from face-to-face meetings in terms of mental load?
There have been many changes placed on us as a result of the government’s attempts to create social distancing between one another in response to the threat of COVID-19 in Singapore. For the employed, perhaps the most significant change involves having to work at home instead of working out of our regular workplaces away from home. Accordingly, the necessary attempts to communicate at work have now to be moved online since face-to-face meetings at work have been prevented. The result of having to conduct our regular conversations and discussions previously in the workplace to the online format means that facing the laptop to attend to vocational as well as social in one location becomes the common practice instead. There are certain characteristics of this practice which leaves users of video-conferencing fatigued:
(a) Previously at a regular meeting often at a conference site, the meetings carry a bigger social bearing. At a virtual meeting, this social bearing is reduced to what is visible only on a screen. Instead of the opportunity to scan the room previously which allows our eyes to adjust and therefore cope with eye strain, virtual meetings mean our gaze is now focused only on what is confined within this screen. We have to stare at this screen and then process everything we hear or see often over a protracted period within a certain frame. As a result, there can be visual overload and mental strain.
(b) Virtual meetings also require more effort than face-to-face meetings. We have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. In contrast to face-to-face encounters, virtual meetings require more effort to assess social and personal meaning because of the context. According to Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, there is a dissonance that emerges during virtual meetings because during this interaction between participants in this format, “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.” This dissonance or disconnection causes people to have conflicting feelings which add to the fatigue. This makes it difficult for people to relax into the conversation naturally.
(c) Dr Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology also describes the fatigue that can come from being watched because the camera is physically and constantly focused on us. In natural social settings, this does not happen. During virtual meetings, people can feel they are on stage and therefore, they feel the social pressure and are expected to perform. The larger the group, the stronger the pressure.
(d) There is also the stress that comes from delays on phone or conferencing systems or when the screen freezes. Glitches in the application of technology put pressure for the participants to ensure that relevant or significant information is not missed out, or to avoid misunderstanding information from what has been communicated. This becomes harder to slow down to clarify when there is a group meeting out of concern that questions could be seen as interference within a tenuous electronic connection.
(e) Visual overload and fatigue that comes from constant online viewing occur not only if meetings are long or frequent with its inherent stresses. The restriction to home has also placed reliance on engaging other activities online, eg. taking classes, ordering food, maintaining social connections outside the immediate family. If there is a practice of over-reliance on the computer screen to attend to other interests, the physical effort to position ourselves at a prolonged period in front of this screen can also create fatigue.
(f) The strain that comes from virtual meetings can be accumulative when meetings are arranged close to one another. Since the worker is already confined at home, virtual meetings can easily be scheduled one after another. The meetings can appear to be executed efficiently. But there may not be any mental breaks in between.
(g) Dr Petriglieri also noted that meeting online creates stress from being reminded that the familiar context has been disrupted by the pandemic. We are all coping within a crisis that has taken the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable in society and endangers our well-being. It is also stressful in the fact that we are used to separating different relationships such as family, friends or colleagues. But now they are all happening within the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects about themselves –context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals–and we find this healthy. When we find this variety reduced, we become disoriented and become more vulnerable to negative feelings. Over a prolonged period of the self-quarantine, he notes the effect: “We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”
How do you alleviate the exhaustion that comes with virtual meetings? Are you able to share a few tips or suggestions?
In light of the stresses and strains of increased virtual meetings as outlined, I would suggest the following:
(a) limit the video calls to only what is necessary; this implies that it is important to take breaks from electronic devices, in general, to avoid over-reliance on them and the subsequent emotional effects from excessive use,
(b) allow for the option to turn off cameras on yourself to be involved and/or face the screen off to one side so that you can concentrate without feeling the pressure to be on camera,
(c) plan breaks in between virtual meetings so that the body and mind have a chance for a break, eg. getting the body to move and stretch increases blood flow and reduce mental fatigue,
(d) if virtual meetings are unavoidable and long, learn to practice the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, takes 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. Remember that the electronic devices are our tools and not our master.
What can bosses or organizers of these meetings do to facilitate these meetings so people don’t leave the meetings feeling exhausted? (While taking into consideration, the time spent on these meetings, or the feelings of the attendees)
It may help to start the meeting by quickly checking in to each other’s well-being. Being ready to acknowledge that the virtual meetings are unusual and that working at home means having to accommodate other family members inconvenienced by the pandemic invites everyone to be mindful about coping collectively with the current disruption. Secondly, consider if virtual meetings are the best way to work. To prevent information overload, would sharing files be more effective? Or the use of the phone to communicate may be a better device in many cases if there is only simple information to share. Thirdly, it may help if the meeting agenda is clearly defined and the end of the meeting is outlined at the start to reduce mental fatigue. Can the meetings be brief knowing that other meetings may be required? If meetings are prolonged, plan for breaks.
What can attendees/employees do to reduce the number of hours spent on video calls? (for example, what they can say to their bosses, or to keep track of the time so everyone is on track)
There needs to be increased education all around related to this topic of fatigue that comes from increased video-conferencing. It is a condition exacerbated by changes at work because of the pandemic. Employees should know their limits. If they recognize when fatigue sets in from excessive computer use, they should limit themselves from relying on their electronic gadgets throughout the day. Research has already shown that excessive computer use is correlated with depression. With more apps available online, there is an increased potential to become more dependent on electronic devices already. During this pandemic, the pressure to depend on the computer through increased virtual meetings is intensified. It is times like this when the wise among us would learn to separate the benefits of computer use from its downsides.
In light of this knowledge, employees can be more proactive to define the perimeters in which they would like to have virtual meetings conducted. If they recognize when fatigue will set in because of prolonged virtual meetings, they can ask to clarify (or specify) to their managers how long the meetings will take to monitor their mental and physical strain. In cases when prolonged virtual meetings are unavoidable, they can clarify if permission can be given to practice adjustments such as moving around as a way of coping with eye strain or from limited mobility experienced during the meetings, avoid the direct exposure to the camera, mute the calls to focus on listening or take breaks after every hour. At times, a person may have to prepare for any interference from young children who find it hard to ignore the presence of the parent at home.
How do we instil positivity in our working lives, when the line between work and home is so blurred right now?
The pandemic and the subsequent quarantine is experienced as a period of adversity to some people. The emotional distress that comes from being quarantined has been recognized as common during this period. Common symptoms of this distress include fear, sadness, numbness, insomnia, confusion, anger, stress, irritability, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, low mood, emotional exhaustion and emotional disturbance (eg. paranoia, anxiety). More specifically, people are faced with the disruption to the routines they have set up to cope with their stressors before the imposition of the quarantine. Distress is experienced because of the effect of the disruption on their autonomy, their sense of competence (being in charge of their lives to cope with their lives), their connectedness and their sense of security. It is a test on our resilience and ability to cope.
At the same time, the very challenge of this situation also provides us with the opportunity to develop our resilience. The first step is to understand and remember that these circumstances are temporary and not permanent. Pandemics happen but they are not frequent in history. Secondly, realize that there is a way to cope with the circumstances. As such, coping with this current situation is priority. I would suggest the following:
(a) Establish a routine for yourself (and that of your children). By creating a structure to attend to work and recreation, you start to organize and occupy yourself with addressing your daily needs as well as that of your family.
(b) Be as active as possible to maintain a fitness level physically, mentally and relationally for yourself and with your family. This also helps to battle against boredom. There are exercise videos online which you and your children can participate together to exercise as well as bond together. Also, for a personal project, you can ask yourself, “What will it take for me to become physically and mentally and relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?” Be curious about how to grow your resilience and to nurture the best version of yourself. Or as a parent, create a project to help your child develop resilience in their own lives and ask, “How can I help my children become physically, mentally or relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?”
(c) Deal with boredom by creating projects that self-nurture, eg. start a hobby or clean out your closet. Competing personal tasks provide a sense of purpose and maintain a sense of competency despite the external circumstances. Creating plans daily offer a focus on accomplishing what is important to your well-being.
(d) Communicate more to avoid isolation as well as cope with boredom. This can be an opportunity to nurture relationships if you are in quarantine with family and to strengthen social bonds with them, or with your support group. Remember that kids may be stressed too from this experience. More time together can provide opportunities for increased play to increase bonding. Games are useful means to bring fun into your relationships and to develop socially besides your entertainment. It can also become a reminder that the family is safe and coping together.
(e) Be informed without being overwhelmed to cope with the anxiety that comes from the unknown. The Straits Times newspaper provide a useful daily update so that you can monitor the threat of the virus rather than obtaining information from cable news. There is much information on the virus today locally and globally so be careful not to become obsessed with the topic.
(f) If you find that your distress is becoming more intense, consider support for your mental health. Your mental health is very important for your daily and long-term functioning. Different places may offer telehealth support where you can consult a therapist or mental health professional. Some services are available online and they can be reached through email, phone calls, texts or video calls.
As the COVID-19 confinement continues, you may have a nagging question on your mind – “what have I managed to achieve”?
Tidy, clean desk draws, closets, and glove compartments; a surprising proficiency in a new language; the final 100 pages of War and Peace; an impressive yoga position; a dazzling new magic trick?
Several weeks into the confinement in Singapore and with several weeks to go before we can be physically social with our friends, some of us may be deflated.
When the confinement/circuit breaker started, we may have vowed to use all the new free time to do things we have never got around to doing.
Now that time is gradually slipping by – we may think that we still haven’t accomplished our goals.
As a psychotherapist, I listen to many people starting to stress that this opportunity of more time isn’t panning out the way they imagined – and that critical voice in their heads is telling them they are inadequate and unworthy.
Feeling Stuck in Shame
What I hear is the frustration of “stuckness.”
Clients tell me: –
I must be more productive
I should have achieved more since confinement began
I should be able to concentrate more and procrastinate less
I must have more enthusiasm, motivation and energy
Note the use of the words “should” and “must”. Our inner critic loves to remind us of all the things we should have done or must do.
It is important to be compassionate to ourselves and banish these words from our vocabulary – at least for the time being.
We may have overestimated what we could achieve in confinement; and underestimated the power of the inner critic, worry and low mood. These are preventing us from feeling satisfied with what is.
Perhaps we had the fond notion that confinement would be like a holiday – more rest, more family time, novel and interesting things to do, and relief from work and the other routines in life.
Reality may now be striking home. Anxiety about our jobs, income, and savings; fear about us and our loved ones contracting the virus; worry that food, masks, and other resources may be scarce; boredom at a routine in the cramped confines of home; the resurrection or development of old family dynamics, fraught with irritations, frustrations, disappointment, mistrust and anger. For some, isolation and loneliness may be an even more crushing weight.
Reframing our Expectations
What will help is kindness – and, in particular, kindness to ourselves.
Perhaps some of us are high achievers, driven by: concrete stretch goals, targets and objectives; KPIs; reports; numbers; test or exam scores.
But COVID-19 confinement is not the time to measure yourself in this way. It’s like drinking soup with chopsticks – frustrating.
I recommend that we redefine productivity and measure our day by whether:
we have achieved an emotional connection with ourselves and others,
got some exercise,
meditated for a few minutes,
did some yoga or Tai Chi,
read something (other than COVID-19 news or social media content);
did something creative, like photography, videos, painting, made some music, baked something new; and
spent “me time” – just sitting quietly, relaxing and enjoying being in the moment.
This confinement is not a competition – so we do not need to compare ourselves against others.
We must permit ourselves some numbing out to Netflix and videos – and not beat ourselves up if we eat some chocolate, cookies or chips.
Let’s also be realistic and recognise that our routines will be different – and that we won’t accomplish the same things in confinement. We will have accomplished things – but they just won’t be the usual things.
Manage your expectations, be gentle with yourself and kind to others – and you will find that there is meaning and purpose to your confinement.