Moving back to Singapore

Among other stressors such as unclear job boundaries, difficult relationships at the workplace, and organizational change (Michie, 2002), relocation can be a significant source of stress.

More effort in pre-move preparation has however been associated with greater post-move mental wellbeing (Martin, 2010). So being mentally prepared goes a long way.

While official guides describe local cultural practices and traditions in Singapore, and offer the basic facts and figures about Singapore, other sources can be equally instructive. A diligent independent guide by Singapore expats offering reassuringly level-headed advice, while a Travel CNN review on the 50 reasons why the garden city is great is quite insightful.

Making the move however can be made Real Simple with a comprehensive checklist for things to do before you move. A print-ready moving checklist cuts the work down to size, reminding you to label and pack these last: kettle, toilet paper, toiletries, towels, and bedding. But since toilet paper and cleaning necessities are never too far away at a supermarket, and char kway teow, satay, and chicken rice at your friendly neighbourhood hawker centre or kopi tiam are only an MRT stop or quick taxi ride away, there’s no real need to panic about not having packed utensils and washing-up liquid. And you can treat yourself and the family to a leisurely al fresco brunch after all the unpacking’s done.

Overseas relocation is acknowledged to be stressful, particularly when it disrupts social support systems (Fontaine, 1986), making it difficult for social support — interpersonal relationships which support individuals in times of stress (Cohen & McKay, 1984) — to play a protective role against psychological stress. While it can be daunting to find the right social network to help one settle in, supportive friendships can certainly be helpful in buffering stress at the new workplace and home.

Here’s a starter kit to get going…

Where to live:

The basics:

Getting around:

Where to Shop:

For families and kids:

For those new in town:

Outdoor activities:

Nightlife & Clubbing:

Social & Recreational clubs | Associations

Where to eat:

And when you can appreciate local acronyms, Mr Brown, and the highly nuanced locally-produced TV comedy called The Noose, it’s a sign of acculturation. Meanwhile, for the really kiasu ever keen to get a headstart on Singapore culture, here are some things you might not have known about Singapore and a succinct cheat sheet from Travel CNN.

Balancing work and life on a tightrope

Work-life harmony is currently a national priority.

The Singapore Tripartite Forum deems employees able to combine work responsibilities and personal-family needs likely to be more engaged and productive at work. Businesses are being encouraged to provide for work-life balance among employees.

And the policy emphasis on work-life harmony is supported by the MoM Work-Life Grant. This grant, previously known as Work-Life Works! or WoW! (no, not World of Warcraft), supports EAP counselling and hotline services as part of Employee Support Schemes. The 2005 Work Life Harmony Report  provides findings and recommendations for employers on using work-life strategies to optimise business performance, while Tripartite Guidelines on Best Work-Life Practices lists mental wellness talks/workshops and confidential professional counselling among employee support schemes for enhancing work productivity. But what’s like on the ground?

According to a research report by Azzone and colleagues in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 90% of Fortune 500 companies implemented EAP services for their employees in 2002, while 40% of US employees in the private sector had access to EAP services in subsequent years (Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, & McCann, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

In Singapore, comprehensive EAPs are a relatively new development, even though corporate wellness programmes have been in place since the 1980s. As many as 26% of private companies in Singapore with at least 50 employees had a comprehensive workplace health promotion programme in 1998 (Chew, Cheah, & Koh, 2002). The findings published in the Singapore Medical Journal were based on a survey which had a 49.5% response rate from 4,479 companies. A 2006 National Workplace Health Promotion Survey, cited in a recent book edited by Kirsten and Karch (2012), Global Perspectives in Workplace Health Promotion, puts this number at 58.7%.

With the recent mushrooming of local EAP providers, hopefully it won’t be too long before the untangling of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and employee assistance payments can begin.

Workout at the office

You’ve already tried to reach your weekly 150 minute moderate exercise quota from ironing your children’s uniforms and rushing to get your washing in before the rains get to it. You’ve tested your family’s patience for long-tailed macaques at nature reserves and squirrels at Sungei Buloh, exhausted all the shopping malls, and walked around the Botanical Gardens, flower domes at Gardens by the Bay, the Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari, and Jurong Birk Park several times over.

Punggol’s waterways are nice but far away. You need things which don’t require traveling or the uncumbersome task of packing food and water for the family.

So here are some things which you can do at the office:

But perhaps you can work a bit harder…

  • Try a new lunch place that’s 20 min away
  • Use a restroom on a different floor
  • Walk to the coffee machine while your desktop boots up
  • Do a hamstrings-quads-triceps stretch in the lift
  • Attempt some pushups while the photocopier warms up
  • Fill up at the water cooler at least three times a day
  • Chat to keep postprandial nap desires at bay
  • Water your plants sparingly (yes, another restroom visit)
  • Rearrange your arch-lever files in different themes
  • Place your dustbin far away—walk over to place each paper you toss, but miss, in the bin

If that’s too tame, you can venture beyond the usual…

  • Try an egg-spoon race at the office with chocolate eggs for a less sticky end to an enticing affair
  • Practice your Chinese opera under a tree at lunchtime
  • Play life-size 3D chess near the office at lunchtime
  • Limbo under an imaginary pole into the restroom
  • Dance in the corridor doing this jazz step or that one
  • Install a standing broad jump station along the corridor
  • Keep goldfish at your desk, changing their water each week
  • Impress the cleaning crew with your uncluttered desk
  • Scrub the mould off your coffee cups
  • Set up a “how many sit-ups in 5 min” competition

Just keep in mind a simple guideline: The more trips to the restroom, pantry, 7-11, cafeteria, playground, exercise garden, etc, the better. When you get tired, just whizz yourself down the corridor in your wheelie chair, swivelling from side to side with your legs off the floor. It’s good for your abs. And excellent entertainment for your bemused colleagues.

Whole grains, fruits, and veggies

Clearly, whole grains are plentiful in the city—this list is evidence enough—but perhaps your recreational pastime is tweeting pictures of your delicious lunch while keeping up with the hip and cool. In which case, you might want to consider the whole grain options at these places. The all-inspiring fruits and veggies at these cafes should also receive no less attention from you.

In the city:

  1. The Plain Cafe | 50 Craig Road
    There’s nothing like a massive bowl of fresh fruit with a dollop of yoghurt and muesli with a neat espresso to get your day started.
  2. Sarnies | 136 Telok Ayer Road
    If you can manage an awesomely early lunch, you can get the salmon-scrambled-egg on rye bread (on the breakfast menu till 11am) and skip the lunch queue which moseys along quickly enough.
  3. Simply Sandwich | 120 Robinson Road
    You can’t go wrong with a nicely toasted sandwich of roast beef and hot mustard on rye.
  4. Nick Vina Artisan Bakery | 15 Gopeng St
    After a hide and seek game with Icon village, paprika salami on wholewheat walnut bread will be a welcome treat. Black forest ham engulfed by balsamic mustard and nine grain cereal bread could also be an invigorating snack for the arduous trek back to the office.
  5. SPR MRKT | 2 McCallum St
    The carrot-fennel soup and an almost salad nicoise—hard-boiled egg, french beans, black olives, salad greens—in the form of a tuna penne salad here will keep your micronutrient needs topped up.
  6. Sophie Bakery | 167/169 Telok Ayer St
    Rustic breads with rye offer a wholesome change from refined loafs.
  7. Baker and Cook | 38A Martin Road
    While waiting to get your fill of the red and green veggies in the chorizo-filled spanish omelette at the flagship store in Hillcrest, a quick peek at the breads might end with you going home ladened with a multigrain bread, or a fig-aniseed sourdough for the more adventurous.
  8. Selfish Gene Cafe | 40 Craig Road
    The weekend breakfast B.O.B. helps you attain your whole grain quota with multigrain bread, along with the requisite poached eggs, smoked salmon, and lacy greens.

A bit further afield:

  1. The Bread Project | 174 Joo Chiat Road
    The homesick will want a German rye filled with fragrant caraway, but it’s not for everyone. More prosaic choices include the pain au cereal which has rye, oats, millet, brown flaxseed, and sunflower seeds.
  2. Simply Bread | 1 Fifth Ave
    At Guthrie House, the Ploughman’s awaits those who appreciate mature cheddar with pickle on sourdough whole grains.
  3. Kooka Cafe | 18 Purvis St
    This well balanced caesar salad with a generous portion of romaine lettuce and bacon with fresh croutons and light dressing will keep you going for the whole day. It’s well worth the trek there.
  4. Choupinette | 607 Bukit Timah Road
    Pain à l’ancienne which has rye comes highly recommended.

Complex carbs (not clothes) make the employee

In addition to reducing the risk of diabetes and obesity (Anderson, 2003), eating whole grains lowers the risk for cardiovascular disease. A 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease is documented in 7 prospective cohort studies (Mellen, Walsh, & Herrington, 2008). In fact, the benefit of eating whole grains is independent of other contributing lifestyle factors (McBurney, 2008). While eating whole grains improves insulin response and blood pressure, some grains like oats and barley specifically lower LDL cholesterol levels (Harris & Kris-Etherton, 2010).

Eating whole grains has also been associated with a lower risk of gastrointestinal cancers (Slavin, 2000), with a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of 25 prospective studies by Aune, Chan, Lau, Vierira, Greenwood, Kampman, and Norat (2011) indicating dietary fibre to be protective against colorectal cancer. Dietary fibre is thought to contribute to the protective value of whole grains, but recent explanations also take into account the contribution from antioxidants, which are found in the bran and germ of whole grains (Fardet, 2010; Slavin, 2000).

That complex carbohydrates or low GI foods create a greater sensation of satiety through the production of gut hormones (Bornet, Jardy-Gennetier, & Jacquet, 2007) — thereby reducing overeating (Roberts, 2009) — is well established. Pre-lunch hunger is reliably lower when participants eat a mid-morning snack containing barley than when it contains wheat or rice (Schroeder, Gallaher, Arndt, & Marquart, 2009). Similarly, lower glucose and insulin levels, and higher ratings of satiety result 90 minutes after a breakfast of complex carbohydrates, compared to one containing simple carbohydrates (Pasman, Blokdijk, Bertina, Hopman, & Hendriks, 2003).

Having oats for breakfast and brown-with-white rice for lunch will not only lower medical costs and days of sick leave among employees, but will ensure employees don’t fall asleep at work!

You are what you eat

Effectiveness in a workplace campaign for a healthy lifestyle would be substantially limited if exercise were the only programme implemented for employees. The benefits of 150 weekly minutes of physical activity from Zumba, groceries, retail therapy, laundry, dog-walking, and plant-watering would be curtailed if not accompanied by a healthy diet.

World Health Organization dietary guidelines for the Asian region recommend a balanced diet, which includes wholegrain cereals, legumes, roots, tubers, other vegetables and fruits, a variety of foods to ensure the consumption of micronutrients such as vitamins, selenium, and zinc, and a moderate intake of sugar and fat.

More specific recommendations are that vegetables and fruit add up to half the meal, while wholegrains make up a quarter, with lean protein in the remaining quarter. As illustrated by the the healthy plate in the Harvard School of Public Health’s guide to eating, vegetables should be red, green, yellow, and orange (maybe purple as well), with whole grains prioritized over refined grains, which contain neither bran nor germ (Mayo Clinic offers a useful guide).

An A to Z by the Whole Grains Council lists barley, oats, wild rice, brown rice, and quinoa as whole grains (but read this article about quinoa); wholegrain foods include bread made with rye or spelt, as well as pasta, soba, and pancakes made with buckwheat. Although whole grains are desirable, changing even half the grains in your meal to whole grains, is a step in the right direction (see tips by the US Department of Agriculture). Local healthy lifestyle advocate, the Health Promotion Board, also recommends a daily serving of whole grains and lists places with whole grain food choices.

Fruit in the staff pantry or communal staff canteen enables healthy eating choices at work. As part of a larger workplace wellness programme, it’s a simple and straightforward way to encourage a healthy lifestyle at the workplace, as the recipients of the 2008 and 2010 Platinum Singapore Health Award, BP and Hotel Grand Pacific demonstrate. Others take it a step further.

Presented at the 17th International Conference on Health Promoting Hospitals and Health Services in Crete, Greece, Wong and Wong (2009) cite around-the-clock fresh fruit and brown rice options at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital staff cafeteria (then known as Alexandra Hospital) as effective ways to prod hospital staff into healthy eating. With unpolished rice being 50 cents cheaper than its urbane refined cousin or available at no additional cost (at KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital), there’s no doubt that this environmental innovation will be making inroads into employees’ eating habits at meal times.

Time to get on that broom

A hundred and fifty minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity is what is recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Yes, we know that the benefits of physical activity on physical and mental health, as well as to organizations in terms of worker productivity and fiscal health, are well documented. Workplace fitness programmes improve stress levels, psychological mood, mental wellbeing, physical health, job satisfaction, job performance, and absenteeism (Atlantis, Chow, Kirby, & Singh, 2004; Coulson & McKenna, 2008; Daley & Parfitt, 2011; Parks & Steelman, 2008). Yadayadayada.

But the workplace aerobic-resistance training programme during protected time will stop at some point. The perceptual message in your inbox insisting that you come and join in the fun at the weekly in-house Zumba workout will cease.

Perhaps one day, your boss and peers won’t have running fever. You won’t find yourself being egged into the August 25th paper run in the most fashionable neighbourhood next to Coney Island. You won’t feel compelled to run like a zombie on October 26th past the Merlion and Universal Studios. And the prospect of a delirious climb up some 2,116 stairs on November 24th to earn a well-deserved Singapore Sling and bird’s eye view of the city won’t be so appealing.

What then? Perhaps you might consider some more banal calorie-burning activities.

For a low intensity workout:

For a moderate intensity workout:

For a high intensity workout:

Finally, at the risk of appearing a bit off kilter to your colleagues, you could try burning extra calories by fidgeting during a staff meeting, pacing while on the phone, taking the longest route to get to the staff canteen, filling your water bottle at the water cooler several times a day, betting your colleagues that you can beat the lift to the ground floor by using the stairs, and waiting in line for half an hour for a cheap teh halia on this side of Central Business District. On the same note, quidditch can also be a good way to meet your weekly quota of physical activity. If only you knew how to get to places on your broom.

A stroll a day keeps the doctor away

Everyone extols the virtues of exercise and physical activity. The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigourous physical activity, for adults aged 18 to 64 years. But what are the real benefits of all that physical activity?

As it turns out, a number of studies report mental health benefits from workplace exercise intervention. Job performance and mood was better on days when employees exercised than on days when they did not, in a study of 201 office workers (Coulson & McKenna, 2008) published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management.

Significant improvements in stress levels, depression and anxiety scores, and physical health were observed for 73 employees who completed a brief 24-week workplace intervention involving both aerobic and weight-training exercise, compared to a waitlist control group (Atlantis, Chow, Kirby, & Singh, 2004).

Improved mood and physical health, greater job satisfaction, and fewer days of absence from work were observed for workers with corporate health and fitness club membership, compared to non-member workers from the same worksite (Daley & Parfitt, 2011).

A recent meta-analysis of 15 studies by Parks and Steelman (2008) has also demonstrated fewer days of absenteeism and better job satisfaction for employees with a corporate workplace wellness programme compared to control groups. Although comprehensive programmes comprising fitness and education about nutrition and/or stress management were implemented in 5 of the 15 studies, benefits were experienced across both comprehensive and fitness- or education-only programmes.

Exercise has also been shown to help individuals with depression. As Craft and Perner (2004) report, a meta-analysis of 80 empirical studies revealed significant improvement in depression scores for those recruited into an exercise intervention compared to controls (North, McCullagh, & Tran, 1990), even when depression was the primary not secondary medical condition (Craft & Landers, 1998) and when only randomized controlled studies were examined (Lawlor & Hopker, 2001).

So now that you’re convinced that exercise improves your quality of life and mental wellbeing, here are a few ideas…

Walking & Nature Trails:

Outdoor activities:

Indoor activities:

Social Dance:

Dance Fitness:

Martial Arts:



Finding a gym:




Kayaking, canoeing & dragonboating:




Climbing & Bouldering:

And if you’re bored with the white-capped munias, pacific swallows, the families of long-tailed macaque monkeys, wild mushrooms and fungi, archduke butterflies and squirrels you get from strolls the Lower Peirce and Macritchie reservoir, you can try this kind of stroll!

All work and no play makes Jack miserable

The benefits of exercise to work productivity are well established. But newer findings suggest that engaging in hobbies can be just as helpful in promoting physical and emotional health. Some hobbies can even be profitable.

Findings by Cuypers, Krokstad, Holmen, Knudtsen, Bygren, & Holmen (2011) published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health revealed that participating in receptive and creative cultural activities was associated with good health, satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both men and women for their population-based sample of 50,797 participants from Norway. In particular, being directly involved in the creative process was more strongly associated with positive health outcomes than passive appreciation of cultural activities, particularly for male participants. On the whole, engagement in more activities was associated with greater benefits than being involved in fewer activities.

So, go head. Play, dance, get involved. it’s time to switch on that creative brain!

Drawing, painting, & crafts:

Craft & Flea Markets:


Film & Cinema:

Music Gigs & Guides:

Freebies in Singapore:

Visual Arts:

Performance Arts:

Workplace wellness: The benefits of exercise

We know we should exercise. And we know how much we need to accomplish in a week. The gold standard for working adults aged 18 to 64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigourous physical activity, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But what does exercise, particularly that at the workplace, achieve?

A vast number of studies point to the health benefits that directly result from exercise and physical activity. Corporate wellness programmes designed to improve workers’ physical activity and/or their diet through exercise or education on a one-to-one or group level, significantly reduce body fat — a risk factor for cardiovascular disease — in 31 random-controlled studies (Groeneveld, Proper, van der Beek, Hildebrandt, & van Mechelen, 2010).

High-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol — another risk factor for cardiovascular disease — was significantly lower than baseline after a 4-year workplace programme to improve physical activity in 2929 factory workers in Japan, after controlling for effects from smoking (Naito, Nakayama, Okamura, Miura, Yanagita, Fujieda, Kinoshita et al., 2008).

Combining strength and aerobic fitness with cognitive-behavioural training and individually customized diet plans, was effective in reducing body mass index or BMI, body fat percentage, and blood pressure, in a randomized controlled study of 98 overweight workers in Denmark (Christensen, Faber, Ekner, Overgaard, Holtermann, & Sogaard, 2011).

Given that workplace fitness programmes result in lower risks for cardiovascular disease, the cost savings to organizations from having lower medical fees and insurance premiums are plain to see. And workplace fitness programmes not only improve anxiety and depression scores, but reduce absenteeism (Bhui, Dinos, Stansfeld, & White, 2008). In fact, for individuals with depression, a fitness programme lasting only 9 weeks of aerobic or strength/resistance training of varying intensity can bring about improvements in mental wellbeing and quality of life ratings (Craft & Perner, 2004).

So apart from making you healthier and your bosses happier, exercise makes you feel good.

Why? Well, current theory posits that exercise induces the release of endorphins which is associated with positive mood, effects an increase in temperature in specific brain regions resulting in muscle relaxation, and/or increases availability of mood-regulating neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin (Craft & Perner, 2004).

And physical activity is not confined to just aerobic and strength/resistance training. A 12-week-long poster and sticker campaign to get Swiss hospital staff to use the stairs brought about not only slimmer waists and the desired use of the stairs, but also reductions in body fat, BMI, HDL cholesterol, and blood pressure (Meyer, Kayser, Kossovsky, Sigaud, Carballo, Keller, Martin, Farpour-Lambert et al., 2010). A 6-months follow-up showed that while lift use had resumed — the stairs were sadly neglected — employees maintained their aerobic fitness and body fat.

So, time to take those stairs to work…