By Patricia B. Mirasol


A YEAR into the pandemic, the Philippines is facing another surge in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, registering new all-time highs in infections. Safety and health concerns commingle with uncertainty, increasing levels of stress and anxiety, as everyone tries to cope with protracted lockdowns.

The coronavirus crisis carries stresses that are both acute and chronic, according to professor and author Brené Brown. “The problem is that a pandemic is both an acutely stressful situation —  like a disaster — and a slow unraveling of every one of the systems and rhythms that keeps us tethered to our lives and to each other — family gatherings, faith communities, school, work…,” she said in a September 2020 podcast episode. “It’s like the wind is breaking the windows, and we’re in cleanup [mode] at the same time. It’s too much to ask some days.”

BusinessWorld spoke with five individuals from different backgrounds — a business owner, an employee, a freelancer, a human resources specialist, and a psychiatrist — to see how they are dealing with the crisis, a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Stress was identified as the “ultimate killer” in workplace performance at Verman General Services, Inc., a janitorial and messengerial manpower service company. Communication, a remedy.

“We help our employees as much as we can,” said Verman T. Reyes, vice-president for operations, adding that management even offers life advice for those who struggle at work because of family matters.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, 34.2% of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) “fully stopped” operations last year. The sector is slowly reopening but the fact remains that millions of Filipinos are unemployed.

Verman considers itself lucky as it remained operational. The company provided free food and transportation for all its employees last year, and continues to provide free transportation at present.

“We accommodate their concerns in person and also over the phone,” said Mr. Reyes, who identified deciding on employee issues — like who to give advances to — as the main stressor in his role as an employer.

“We invest heavily on financial support for our employees because that’s their primary concern,” he said. “At the end of the day, however, you can only do so much.”

To decompress, Mr. Reyes indulges in hobbies like farming and collecting fruit trees. He also reads on topics related to self-development and corporate strategies implementation. “Having support from peers and family helps a lot because I have people to talk to,” he said. “Having healthy family dynamics is very important to mental wellness. Problems are unavoidable but you need to understand the reasons behind them. Clashes happen, but you need to know how to effectively resolve problems.”

Olay E. Rullan switched jobs during the pandemic because the furloughs implemented caused a spike in her workload. While those who lost their jobs understandably have a lot weighing on their minds, even gainfully employed individuals like Ms. Rullan have not been exempt from the stresses of this period.

“Not being able to go out and about, as well as relatives dying, took a heavy toll on my mental health,” she said. Ms. Rullan was planning to take the rest of the year off, but then got a good offer from TOA Global, an accounting outsourcing firm, where she is now director of enterprise applications.

Organizations are already recording a spike in Filipinos battling mental health issues. According to the 2021 Pulse of Asia: The Health of Asia Barometer report, 42% of Filipinos reported experiencing elevated stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of COVID-19. The National Center for Mental Health’s hotline also reported receiving more than double its pre-pandemic number of calls per month in 2020.

Given that the first nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 16, 2020, it was fitting that Department Order No. 208 was signed by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III the previous month. The order provided the guidelines to employers and workers for “the effective implementation of mental health policies and programs in accordance with RA 11036 or the Mental Health Act.”

“My company implemented counseling sessions for those having a rough time,” said Ms. Rullan, who counts her friends, family, and colleagues as her support system. “Peace is not really elusive when you know where to look for it. After a while, peace [becomes something that’s] found in the mundane things. It’s finding your joy through them.”

Vanya P. Tantoco, a freelancer who offers digital marketing services, continues to thrive amid the uncertainties of 2020 and 2021.

“I tried freelancing to add an income stream, and it turned out pretty well for me,” said Ms. Tantoco, who took on side projects after the alumni office she was working for cut its budget, leaving her with an extra 20 hours a week. Some of the clients she works with are Yankee Candle Philippines, VNM Naturals (Venus and Mars Naturals), My Easy Therapy, and Tatiomax Glutathione.

“While the world had to pause, I had to move fast to catch up on my digital projects,” she said. “My confidence grew. I had the courage to offer my services to bigger companies and work with a lot more people.” An offshoot of more work, however, is the difficulty of setting boundaries, because her workstation is now open 24/7.

To decompress and calm herself down, Ms. Tantoco does yoga and breathing exercises. She also keeps her communication lines open. “Sending quick chats to people I want to connect with helps. So does engaging with fellow freelancers on Facebook groups,” she said. “Small talk makes a big difference.”

Ms. Tantoco’s advice for freelancers who struggle these days is to focus on honing special skills. “This is important so you can automatically have an edge over other freelancers,” she said. “Keep on practicing and do not lose hope. Find inspiration in others because if they can do it, then so can you.”

An advantage of long-standing companies is the privilege of having insights born out of having gone through multiple crises. Multinational technology company IBM, for instance, has been around since June 16, 1911, and has thus been through a series of global phenomena, from the Great Depression to the great recession. It has a mental health policy that was put in place even before COVID-19 hit the world.

“All sorts of things have led the company to prepare for all sorts of scenarios in the different countries where we have offices,” said Graziella C. de Guzman, country human resources leader of IBM Philippines. “Policies, like the one we have for mental health, get disseminated across our offices. We’re serious about putting an emphasis on a holistic approach for mental wellness.”

Its Philippine office saw a rise in employees seeking professionals to talk to at the start of the pandemic. Individuals needed someone to help explain what they were going through and how they could cope, and staff and their family members utilized the company’s Employee Assistance Program’s (EAP) hotline. The hotline offers professional and confidential support 24/7, and calls to it “increased by 80% as compared to previous years,” Ms. de Guzman told BusinessWorld. Callers are assigned a specific counselor, depending on the nature of concern raised, and can be scheduled for follow-up sessions. Participation is purely voluntary.

The company also came up with a work-from-home pledge that offers support for personal needs and non-“camera-ready” times. It also encourages checking in on people and being kind. “The pledge encompasses all life circumstances, including those living alone or with children. Everyone is asked that they take care of themselves and be with their families first. We put people at the center of our business strategy,” said Ms. de Guzman.

The EAP is supplemented by online activities that enable everyone to reconnect despite the work-from-home (WFH) reality. Examples of such are the concert organized featuring local artist Ebe Dancel last year, plus Halloween and year-end contests. Feedback is solicited from employees to ensure the activities’ success.

Employees are likewise empowered to form events they want to participate in within their teams without having to ask prior permission, said Ms. de Guzman. Support groups, such as those for women and persons with disabilities, are available for those who need it.

Ms. De Guzman said she finds peace nowadays by being mindful, controlling what is within her control, and taking things one day at a time. “Mental health is as important as physical health, and early detection is key. We at IBM do not discriminate.”

Psychiatry is not the specialty that’s first in line in terms of infectious diseases, but it’s first in line in terms of caring for the carers. Dr. Victoria C. de la Llana, lead psychiatrist of Mindcare Club, an online mental health platform, said that frontliners are in need of mental healthcare more than ever.

“In the government hospital where I work, mental health was institutionalized. At the start of the pandemic, not much was known about COVID-19, so going to work was a traumatic experience,” she told BusinessWorld. “Employees are welcome to come in for stress debriefing.”

Dr. De la Llana said that in most of the hospitals she works for, there are always provisions for employees who need mental healthcare. “There are always takers,” she added, “and we stand with them.”

A silver lining of the pandemic was the opening of more opportunities for telehealth platforms. This pressing need for remote medical services in the age of COVID-19 prompted Albay Representative Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda to file House Bill No. 7422, or the proposed “Philippine E-Health and Telemedicine Development Act,” last August 2020. The bill will provide for the development of telemedicine as well as regulate the industry.

Mental wellness patients similarly availed of this e-health avenue all throughout the various quarantine measures.

“A number of psychiatrists never stopped working even in the face of a lockdown because there was a need for it. Requests were coming in — and sometimes it wasn’t through professional channels,” Dr. De la Llana said. “Even family and friends would ask for help.” Some of her pre-pandemic patients who weren’t able to come back anymore were supplanted by new ones.

Anxiety and depression are the most common concerns verbalized by her patients. Some were able to elaborate further and said that the things that used to help them through rough patches in the past, such as friends and traveling, have been taken from them.

The pandemic is a long, drawn-out disaster, and some coping mechanisms are not possible now. Dr. De la Llana, who shared that she personally got closer to some friends during this pandemic (“They help keep me sane”), said that it was important to see things as they are — not as they aren’t, and not as one wishes them would be.

“Yes, things are in flux, but it doesn’t mean life doesn’t go on or there aren’t opportunities. It’s like water. When you scoop up water, it just leaves space for more water to come in,” she said.

“Your expectations have to be realistic. You can’t expect the same amount of productivity, because the requirements are different now. Everyday life is different now. Let go of what was pre-COVID. There are so many things we can’t do, so focus on what we can do. It’s the Great Reset, so we can also reset our hopes of how we can have fun and how we do our work.”

How to better manage working from home

Tips from Victoria C. de la Llana, MD, DSBPP, FPPA, lead psychiatrist of mental health platform Mindcare Club.

  • One thing you can do to feel a bit better is to fix up so you are camera-ready — even if you’re only at home, or even if you have a call that doesn’t require you to turn on your video. This helps because it gets you in the workday mindset. It’s a way to condition yourself.
  • It’s also recommended to have a home office outside your bedroom whenever possible. Choose the dining table or a corner that is not your bedroom, so that when you leave that space you know you’re “home” again and can relax. It serves as a signal to family members too that, when you’re seated there, you’re working. They’ll know that they have to ask permission first before interrupting you.
  • Actively reaching out to colleagues is more important than ever nowadays. Find the online equivalent of watercooler conversations or whatever went on in the pantry before. This is important. — Patricia B. Mirasol