(Today Online) Stressbusters: Meet the migrant workers trained to spot signs of distress in their community

Nabilah Awang // February 27, 2022, Updated February 28, 2022

Stressbusters: Meet the migrant workers trained to spot signs of distress in their community
Electrical and instrumentation technician Hasan Samim (left) and scaffolding supervisor Pandiyan Selvamurugan at HealthServe on Feb 22, 2022.
  • 170 migrant workers have been trained by HealthServe last year to be peer support leaders and to spot signs of distress in their community
  • They were also taught ways to approach and listen to a friend in need, as well as breathing techniques
  • Workers TODAY interviewed said they have spotted signs of distress among their friends and colleagues, such as a sudden change in behaviour, and intervened
  • While they are supporting friends and colleagues in need, the workers said they also have their own problems, especially in terms of finances and work

SINGAPORE — When he was scrolling on Facebook last week, Mr Hasan Samim, 31, came across a post uploaded by a junior colleague about feeling desolated in Singapore after being stuck here for three years. 

Mr Samim, an electrical and instrumentation technician with Rotary Engineering, later approached that colleague and found out that he was heartbroken because his girlfriend got married to another man. 

“I bought him ice cream and talked to him. After half an hour, he started to share his problem… he was sad, and he was crying,” he said.

“I told him: ‘You have a good job and a good opportunity working in Singapore. Those people who left you are unlucky, they didn’t deserve you. So why are you crying?'”

Mr Samim, a Bangladeshi who has worked in Singapore for nine years, is among 170 migrant workers who have been trained by non-profit organisation HealthServe last year to be peer support leaders and spot signs of distress in their community. 

This initiative was spurred by the experience of its mental health team who have been caring for migrant workers on the ground at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, said a HealthServe spokesman. 

It is also part of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Project Dawn, set up in November 2020, to boost mental health care and support for migrant workers in Singapore.

HealthServe said since the launch of its 24-hour crisis hotline in August 2021, it has received over 2,500 calls for assistance, or a monthly average of 500 calls – a 150 per cent increase from January 2021 when the service was operating during office hours only.

“Spikes have been observed on significant occasions such as news of restriction measures in Singapore, disasters or crises in migrant workers’ home countries, or during festive seasons when workers tend to face increased stressors,” said a spokesperson.

“This increase in calls for various forms of assistance has translated to a parallel increase in demand for HealthServe’s other services such as counselling, medical and dental services as well as casework assistance.”


Peer support leaders, such as Mr Pandiyan Selvamurugan, 33, are trained to approach and listen to a friend in need, as well as breathing techniques, so they can be first responders to those who are troubled.

They have also been equipped to identify signs of stress, such as a sudden change in behaviour. 

Just last week, Mr Pandiyan noticed that a work colleague has started to drink more frequently to the point he would get drunk.

The scaffolding supervisor at Altrad Services Singapore, a firm that provides industrial services, said he decided to approach his colleague the next day because the situation reminded him of when he lost a senior colleague to excessive drinking over a decade ago.

Recounting the incident, Mr Pandiyan, who has been working here for 14 years, said his colleague had taken a call on the fourth floor of his then-dormitory in Lim Chu Kang when he fell off the railing while in a drunken state.

“This could happen to another person, you know. So I worry about this colleague,” he said. “When he told me he had family problems, I said ‘Brother, we can find a solution. If you drink and spend a lot of money, how much are you going to send to your family?’”

Since then, Mr Pandiyan said he has been reminding his colleague to watch his alcohol intake and is supporting him to stop drinking eventually. 

Both Mr Pandiyan and Mr Samim said the initiative is timely as the pandemic has exacerbated some problems in the migrant worker community. Among them is the fear of not being able to return to Singapore to work once they decide to come home. 

“Once you go back, it’s very difficult to come back. You need to get approval, a lot of documents… these are things people are scared of, especially those who are supporting their families,” said Mr Samim. 

Many are also struggling with sleeping problems as they are carrying a heavier workload due to the backlog of work, said the pair. 

Mr Samim said: “Many people have been working overtime… so they got sleeping issues because once they come back to the dormitory, they have to shower and prepare dinner. 

“Sometimes you end work at 9pm or 10pm, you finish cooking dinner around 12am, then you have to wake up the next morning at 5am. When you have less sleep, your stress (level) can go up.”


While they are supporting friends and colleagues in need, the pair said they also have their own problems, especially in terms of coping with finances and work.

Mr Pandiyan said he struggles to be a present father for his two-and-a-half-year-old son.

“When I grew up, my father was also not around. He was working in Bahrain. (When I was in school), they will tell me to bring my father and mother to the monthly meeting but I can only bring my mother,” he said, adding that he does not want this to happen to his son. 

Mr Samim said that with the pandemic affecting the livelihoods of many, he has been focusing on providing for his family in the last two difficult years, especially for his father who has heart problems and his one-and-a-half-year-old son, whom he has yet to meet. 

But it is the support from their family that keeps them going, even during tough times, such as the lockdown in the workers’ dormitory in 2020. The pair also agreed that the techniques they learned to combat stress, such as meditation and breathing exercises, have helped to keep their stress levels in check.

Asked what drove him to continue helping other workers in need, Mr Samim said: “Money can be earned, but love, you cannot earn very easily. By helping others, I get a lot of love from people and that makes me so happy.

“It makes me feel like aside from my work, I did something for myself and for my own happiness.”

News source: Today Online

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