Haze impacting Malaysians' productivity and mental health

PHOTO: Azlina Abdullah/The Star/ANN

Respiratory ailments are the least of our problems as the prolonged haze starts to affect workers' productivity and mental health.

SINCE the hot and dry season started in June, the country has experienced hazy days, culminating in the recent prolonged spell that some experts claim could last until March.

Besides falling ill, Malaysians have had to put up with cancelled flights and schools closing. Now, as Indonesia's fires continue to rage on, depression, anxiety and low productivity have set in.

Accountant Sam Yong, 30, hasn't been out jogging for weeks and the lack of exercise has taken a toll. Not only has her cholesterol spiked, she feels suffocated.

"I just go from home to the office and back every day. No fresh air. My movements are limited and I feel mentally trapped," she sighs.

Copywriter Shireen Chen, 37, is tired of waking up to grey and polluted skies. Feeling demoralised and unproductive, her creative spark is dimming.

"I just don't want to get out of bed. When I'm driving to work and see skyscrapers hidden in smog, my heart just sinks. Now I understand what my friend meant when she said she left the UK because of the depressing weather."

Workers resent having to work when schools are closed as they are also affected by the unhealthy Air Pollutant Index, observes Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan, noting that trade unions have called for unrecorded leave to be allowed on such days.

"Staff seem less active. They're uncomfortable. The hot and humid weather makes it worse."

Malaysian Mental Health Association ­deputy president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj says the prolonged hazy skies can certainly cause people to become less productive and even depressed.

Productivity, he says, will decrease, especially among those whose livelihood is jeo­pardised by environmental hazards. The impact of the haze, however, is not only on productivity for the whole nation, he adds.

"Besides great financial implications, there's the impact on physical and mental health. People suffer from psychological distress because their physical health has been compromised. Those already suffering from anxiety and depression are likely to see their condition worsening."

Some Malaysians become depressed, similar to what Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) patients in countries with four seasons experience, says Universiti Malaya associate professor and consultant psychiatrist Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin.

He recently treated a patient who was feeling depressed and under the weather because of the prolonged haze.

When the weather or season changes, moods are altered because sleep patterns are disrupted, there's little sunlight and it's gloomy outside, he adds.

"It feels like winter but minus the cold. Those vulnerable to mood disorders find it especially tough to cope with the uncertainty of when the hazy veil will lift. One day you read that the haze will go away soon. Then, the next you hear that it'll linger on till next year. The unpredictability is upsetting and can lead to depression. Even you and I can get depressed in this environment."

Shedding some light on SAD, Dr Andrew says it's depression that comes with shortened day light. This usually occurs during winter when there's less day light, he explains.

Less melatonin, which is linked to depression, is produced. So, this leads to people feeling low, he says, adding that the haze is not known to cause SAD but the gloom brought about by the haze can be a contri­buting factor to low moods, less motivation and increased anxiety.

Those suffering from anxiety disorders or depression are likely to have their symptoms exacerbated.

"There's also a psychological component linked to certain medical conditions like bronchial asthma and eczema. People with these conditions will be more psychologically distressed as a result of their physical symptoms worsening," he says.

Even children who may initially be excited with schools closing will face more stress later when their academic performance is compromised, he suggests.

"Those in danger of having their exams postponed will also suffer from performance anxiety as they would have lost the momentum in their studies. The overall poor performance of Malaysian students will limit their competitiveness internationally when they score lower in their university entry qualifications."

Staff take unplanned leave because of unscheduled lesson disruptions, Shamsuddin laments. As a result, companies experience a drop in productivity.

"More employees, especially working ­parents with kids in kindergartens and primary schools, applied for emergency leave recently. They have to take care of their kids at home."

Parents shouldn't cause their children unnecessary anxiety, advises Hospital Penang child and adolescent consultant psychiatrist Dr Lai Fong Hwa.

Kids, he says, observe and behave the same way their ­parents do.

"If the parents are down, moody and worried, the child will also feel and act like them."

While the negative physical effects of the haze are undeniable, he says a person's psychology can make it worse.

"While the haze may make you uncomfortable, your mental state can make you feel sicker. You will begin to feel your nose itching, your eyes watering and your throat becoming sore if you constantly think about these haze-related symptoms."

He tells adults not to worry the kids.

"Taking the necessary precautions to keep the children healthy is fine but don't fill their minds with negativity."

The haze, Dr Andrew says, can cause people to display irritability and low tolerance for one another as well as lead to ­behavioural changes.

Feelings of anxiety, low motivation, low mood and uncertainty, can result, he says.

"Poor visibility may make motorists more agitated and this can result in road tantrums."

Unfortunately, you can't just snap out of these feelings. You can only minimise or avoid the cause, he points out. Maintaining interaction with family and friends is important, he says, but people should also try to minimise unnecessary exposure to the haze and wear appropriate masks and protection. Keep well hydrated, he offers.

"Those with breathing problems and anxie­ty or depression should be especially careful. Be aware of the possible effect of the haze on your psychological state and avoid stressful events that may have a cumulative effect on such pre-existing conditions," he says.

Create a happy surrounding indoors by using lights, suggests Dr Amer, advising people with a family history of depression to get checked.

"Stop smoking. Exercise because it raises your endorphins and your spirits!"

Ultimately, Dr Andrew hopes every possibility is explored in the ASEAN spirit to overcome the problem. Serious, concerted effort from all stakeholders is a must, he stresses.