Holiday blues: How to support staff separated from family overseas

This year, the festive season may be a little harder for some

Holiday blues: How to support staff separated from family overseas

Extended lockdowns and border closures have resulted in two groups of employees in need of very different forms of support. Can HR effectively cater to workers’ varied needs?

The first group has received plenty of attention through 2020: moms and dads forced to work from home, while concurrently managing their children schooling from home.

Some families found themselves living and spending 24/7 with each other this year. The experience was stressful in many ways but had its ups and downs, including the rare opportunity for busy family members to bond.

Read more: How to cope as a family in isolation

Then there’s the second group of people. They may have gone unnoticed for much of the year but deserve highlighting during the festive season – they’re the employees working overseas and are far from loved ones.

‘Stuck’ working overseas
Those employees have spent most, if not all, of 2020 in their host countries. And with COVID-19 still raging in new waves of infections across the world, borders are likely to remain close for leisure travel.

This reality may be especially difficult for employees who used to take long breaks from work during the year-end festive period to fly home and spend some much-needed time with loved ones.

You need not even look far for an example – Malaysian workers in Singapore have found themselves ‘stuck’ and separated from their loved ones, despite the ‘short’ journey home.

Read more: COVID-19: MOM not extending support for ‘stranded’ Malaysian employees

In pre-COVID times, all it’d take to get home was a 15mins bus ride across the causeway. You could even walk to get from Singapore’s borders to the immigration checkpoint in Johor. But now, no amount of accumulated annual leaves can guarantee your return home.

To make things worse, a Johor works, transportation and infrastructure committee chairman, Mohd Solihan Badri, allegedly claimed that some of these workers were forced to remain in Singapore and ‘wait their turn’ to take their annual leave.

“There were also instances where some workers were hesitant to come back as they were worried about losing their jobs after returning to Malaysia,” Badri told local Malaysian media.

He said Malaysia’s Immigration Department was working hard to facilitate employees’ safe return home and urged workers to head to the authorities’ website for updates.

He added that both governments should consider opening the border for daily commuters as COVID-19 cases were low in both states, with mutual terms like the Periodic Commuting Agreement (PCA) and Reciprocal Green Lane in place.

“As long as there is adequate COVID-19 testing on both sides of the border and also good compliance with the standard operating procedure, I don't see a problem in the border being reopened to workers to commute regularly,” he said.

Read more: How to beat the 'holiday burnout'

The impact of loneliness
While one can hope for borders to reopen soon – maybe in time for Chinese New Year – leaders should consider supporting employees who may be feeling a little lonelier or isolated this December.

If you’re not sure whether employees need your help, you should take into account the impact of prolonged social isolation.

Psychologist Louise Hawkley, PhD, a senior research scientist at a research organisation at the University of Chicago co-authored a 2015 study that found the debilitating impact of loneliness on an individual’s physical, mental, and cognitive health.

Hawkley and fellow researchers found that social isolation can lead to consequences like depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, and impaired immunity.

A more recent study in 2019 by Kassandra Alcaraz, PhD, MPH, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society found similar adverse health effects.

“Our research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity,” Alcatraz said.

What’s more, Nicole Valtorta, PhD, an epidemiologist at Newcastle University found that not having loved ones close by can make things worse.

“Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits,” Valtorta said.

Read more: How to deal with anxiety and depression at work

How can leaders help lonely employees?
So what can leaders do to support these employees?

You can pick up the following activities suggested by experienced leaders:

  • Have regular check-ins with employees

Not everyone will reach out for support but if you build rapport over time, there’s a higher chance that co-workers will share their experiences.

  • Have casual catch up sessions online

Video calls and online chats will never replace in-person interactions but it can help build relationships and a sense of community.

  • Employee-led engagement activities

Encourage employees to hold voluntary virtual meet-ups or social activities like ‘game night’ or meals together. Employee-led activities also tend to be more effective than HR-led ones.

  • Urge employees to seek help

Make accessible and communicate the availability of EAP initiatives like counselling services. Urge employees to reach out to colleagues if they’re feeling depressed or unable to cope with their circumstances.

Read more: IMH CEO: How to tackle the mental health crisis

At a recent roundtable session, a chief people officer from an insurance firm pointed out that it’s not just HR’s role to manage well-being. It’s the role of every manager at the organisation, especially with everyone on varied working arrangements.

“What’s really key is the relationship people managers have with their staff,” she said. “Of course as HR, we try to set up the framework, but it really comes down to the individual relationship someone has with their manager.

“The manager is in charge of enhancing engagement and living the organisation’s values. And I’m not sure if everything is happening [amidst the pandemic] and so you have this kind of disconnect, as well as a lack of belonging or sense of community.”

Read more: Christmas 2020: What will your office party look like?

Another leader HRD spoke to shared that while her company have held many virtual festive celebrations, their focus remains on encouraging self-care.

“In view of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, overseas travel and large gatherings are discouraged, so it’s normal to experience lesser in-person human connections,” said Lance Foo, HR director, Asia Pacific at Fiserv.

“As HR professionals, beyond work, we encourage people around us to create fresh and positive holiday memories through other engagements such as volunteering or picking up new skills online.

“[This allows us to] build new relationships, which adds to our current existing support system and allow us to get or give emotional support to others. Both can be enriching, empowering and uplifting.

“To be cooped up in our current state can lead to a spiral that continuously builds on our anxiety, hence we should explore a wider variety of solutions to practise and promote self-care.

“Start this holiday season first with self-love.”

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