'This is what we needed': Some quitting their jobs, taking sabbaticals amid COVID-19 burnout

'This is what we needed': Some quitting their jobs, taking sabbaticals amid COVID-19 burnout

17/10/2021 1:24:00 AM

'This is what we needed': Some quitting their jobs, taking sabbaticals amid COVID-19 burnout

SINGAPORE: When the COVID-19 pandemic first forced many Singapore employees to work from home, a 31-year-old infrastructure development engineer, who only wanted to be known as Mark, felt it was \u0022quite a luxury\u0022. But after a year of working from home, Mark realised the lines between his work and perso

, said the pandemic has led some workers to turn to"apocalyptic thinking"."The constant bad COVID news on social media of rising cases, no travel, new vaccine variants can make many feel trapped and numb," he told CNA.This has resulted in a loss of interest and meaning in their jobs and daily tasks, which are seen as less important"in the grand scheme of deaths, massive economic losses and families being torn apart".

Coupled with no office-home separation, this creates a downward spiral of"constantly feeling swamped and feeling emotionally empty", he added.NUS sociologist Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser agreed that working from home has blurred the boundaries.

"Employees are feeling that they have to be at work or working all the time, almost 24/7 having to meet unreasonable deadlines, not knowing whether they are getting the job done and done well from the perspective of their bosses," he said.Other factors include not knowing what their bosses’ expectations really are, and not having easy access to social support from colleagues, he added. headtopics.com

WHEN WORKING FROM HOME IS CRUCIALSome employees quit their jobs not because they are working from home, but other pandemic-induced reasons.In fact, Ms Willynn Ng, 33, really needed to work from home to better support her four daughters – aged 10, 9, 8 and 3 – academically after schools switched to home-based learning.

Then, her job at the programme office of a local autonomous university required her to accelerate the adoption of technology in different processes. She called it a fast-paced environment with employees that did things in a traditional way."Some of the bosses were very insecure about work-from-home. They are all workaholics, and expected everybody to work from the same place," she said.

Ms Ng said the constant juggling between her own workload and her daughters' school assignments made her tired and stressed out. It eventually took a toll on her mental health."I do not have additional support in terms of parenting. The working environment doesn't enable me to facilitate certain forms of arrangements," she said.

"I told my daughters and myself that what is more important is our mental well-being. So, I decided to take a sabbatical to fix all the problems, like their academics and to assure them that everybody is going through this; it's not just you alone." headtopics.com

Since the pandemic, work has become all-consuming, some employees say. (File photo: iStock/PeopleImages)In April, when Ms Ng was about 11 months into her contract role, she approached her employer with the idea. However, she said the company could not really give her an answer, perhaps because she was not a full-time employee.

"I just resigned fully from the job and took a break," she said.Still, Ms Ng would have preferred a sabbatical as she was unsure about getting a new job during the pandemic."You're not sure if the job market is still active, so you definitely would want a certain level of job security," she added.

NUS' Assoc Prof Tan said some employees worry about not being able to catch up when they return from their sabbatical, or being forced to get a new job and change career path with an uncertain future.Likewise, former engineer Mark said he was worried about getting another job after returning from his break.

"The first few concerns were whether prospective employers would frown upon the fact that you took sort of a half-year gap," he said."I'm keeping faith that they are progressive enough to look past that, because at the end of the day, businesses want talent and people who can contribute. Not really people that just look good on paper and follow what is perceived to be the norm." headtopics.com

SABBATICALS A GROWING TRENDMr Lee, the mental health platform founder, pointed out that sabbaticals are a growing trend these days, although he said it takes an empathetic employer to recognise the need for it.Before the pandemic, progressive companies offered sabbaticals to long-serving employees of five, seven or 10 years, said veteran HR practitioner Carmen Wee.

"It's really symbolic, because then you send a signal to your employee that you are valued and we will take care of your well-being and all the positive messages," she told CNA."Now, in this current pandemic, it is even more critical to examine that as a possibility."

When asked about employee concerns that requesting a sabbatical would make them look weak and affect career progression, Ms Wee said this boils down to the company's leadership culture."If you are a good employer, then you will not abuse your power. You will look after your employee and see them as assets," she added.

"If you take a longer-term view of things, or if you are a little bit more progressive or open-minded, you don't think about: 'You went away, so I need to take back from you.'"MindFi's app lets employees go through guided exercises and team challenges to improve mental well-being. (Photo: MindFi)

Nevertheless, Mr Lee said the onus is on employees who take a sabbatical or a break from employment to justify why they took it, how they spent their time and what they learnt."If they can justify this, this gap in the resume can be transformed into a positive asset," he said.

Ms Wee said this can be done by taking courses and learning new skills, highlighting that in the current climate, it could take a while before people find another job."Many people are out of a job, and employers can pick and choose. So that's why I always say, the caveat is you must make sure that you are marketable and have a network that will help you land a job fast," she said.

REFRESHED AND RECHARGEDMs Ng said her career break lessened the strain on her mental health and schedule, allowing her to prioritise her kids. She also used her SkillsFuture credits to take a course that helped her better manage teams and organisations.

In August, after five months away from the workforce, Ms Ng clinched a community building role with social video platform TikTok. It is a work-from-home position that still lets her be closer to her daughters."At the end of the day, when I see my kids are able to find somebody to be with and get their problems solved immediately, there's a certain level of happiness that I can't describe – that only parents will know," she added.

A child using a laptop. (File photo: Reuters)Mark and Victoria are taking things slower. In September, they flew to Thailand andentered the country via the Phuket sandbox, which allows fully vaccinated travellers in without quarantine.They plan to travel around Thailand for at least three to six months, and are currently on the island of Koh Phangan.

"So far, it's been great. Different people have different arrangements, but for mental well-being, this is what we needed," Mark said."Of course, travelling is not all that easy as well. It comes with its own hassle, our car broke down and all that, but it's a new experience so that's a positive thing."

The couple is also picking up new skills such as photography, video editing and social media through videos and courses on platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn."The sabbatical is also a time for yourself not only to relax but also to learn new things and keep up with digital trends," Victoria said."Without being here, I think we wouldn't have found the time to explore these new areas."

They have so far uploaded two first-person travel videos on their newly created YouTube channel The Lost Dew, in hopes of sharing their experiences and inspiring other Singaporeans who might be thinking of taking a similar leap of faith.STILL A LUXURY

As for those who might worry about the financial hit from taking a sabbatical or career break, Mark said travelling in the region during a pandemic could be cheaper than what people think."A lunch here in Thailand, it could be S$1 or S$2. Of course, for some people that may not be what they're looking at," he said.

Mark said they used their savings and budgeted for the long trip to ensure they had enough for a rainy day."Usually every year we will budget some savings for travels and we haven't been travelling for so long, so we kind of took this as our travel expense," Victoria said.

Mr Lee emphasised that those who can afford not to earn an income during the pandemic are part of the"luxury segment", pointing to celebrities and CEOs who quit their jobs as they grapple with questions about self-worth.Some cannot afford it, like those who face economic uncertainties and career stigma if future employers demand answers to their resume gaps, he said.

"Many are so trapped by bills they can’t quit, and that’s where mental health is so emphasised today in workplaces. We need to take care of those who can't afford to quit."With that said, Mr Lee highlighted that the luxury of taking a career break could lead to a deeper appreciation for the meaning of life.

"Taking a bit of time off the hamster wheel of work can be liberating because we flex our mental muscles in a different way – perhaps to explore a childhood hobby, an alternative career, or just read and reflect introspectively," he said. Read more: CNA »

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