Working towards a healthy workplace

The World Health Organisation (WHO) supports a healthy workplace to prevent non-communicable diseases and reduce the burden of mental ill health – health priorities highlighted by the United Nations.

Advocating a comprehensive model to promote healthy behaviours among workers in their job and lifestyle, and minimize their exposure to psychosocial and physical risks, WHO recommends re-allocating work to reduce workloads and respecting work-family balance  for mental wellness, and implementing safety measures in the physical environment.

The responsibility of achieving a healthy workplace also falls on the organization. This means providing employees with personal health resources. Fitness facilities and programmes, healthy food choices, smoking cessation programme support, and employee assistance counselling are among the list of activities recommended by WHO.

The work of promoting healthy workplaces sits in the purview of the Health Promotion Board (HPB). Their Workplace Health Promotion Programme is guided by Sept 2000 recommendations from the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Health Promotion. As well as easy access to HR resources for implementing corporate wellness programmes, organizations can apply to HPB for funding from the Workplace Health Promotion Grant.

The rationale for promoting a healthy workplace is not limited to ethical-legal considerations: Healthy employees are key to staff retention and sustainability. In other words, organizations have a corporate social responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for employees, but it also makes good business sense.

Coping with stress at the workplace

Performance pressure and work overload are theme songs sung in workplace surveys (e.g., JobCentral, Robert HalfVMWare New Way of Life), while staff turnover are evergreen issues in high stress professions like nursing (Chan & Morrison, 2008) and teaching (Fang & Wang, 2005; 2006).

Coping with workplace stress is no new stranger to nurses and teachers. In a study of 780 UK teachers, Griffith, Steptoe, and Cropley (1999) have observed that greater use of active coping, as well as greater social support such as from family and peers, is associated with less self-reported job stress. Austin, Shah, and Muncer (2005) have further demonstrated that teachers who use escape-avoidance or accepting responsibility strategies report higher levels of stress. A report on 415 secondary school teachers in Hong Kong reiterates these findings (Chan & Hui, 1995): avoidance coping relates to burnout. Teacher coping strategies clearly play a role in workplace resilience.

In a study with a local sample, Boey (1998) reports coping strategy to influence resilience in nurses experiencing high levels of stress. Nurses who reported greater use of problem orientation, ability enhancement, and change of perspective and less reliance on avoidance coping, reported greater job satisfaction than those who reported using these strategies less. Similar to the findings with teachers, active coping appears to benefit nurses compared to avoidance strategies, which can be viewed as maladaptive.

A study with a sample of 316 participants by Ko, Chan, & Lai (2007) reveals similar coping strategies among local teachers. In a book chapter in “Work Stress and Coping Among Professionals”, the authors report the most frequently used coping strategies to be active coping (scrutinizing and trying to solve the problem, analyzing the problem to prevent it from happening again, working harder to deal with the problem) and accepting responsibility (accepting and living with the problem, looking on the bright side of things). While local teachers appear unlikely to use escape-avoidance strategies (having a drink, smoking), it is noteworthy however, as discussed by the authors, that direct-action coping may not be helpful for problems outside the control of the individual. Importantly, seeking professional help is a coping strategy rarely considered by this sample.

In addition to training interventions which improve the employee’s ability to cope with routine stress, there is support for the view that professional counselling can be beneficial as well. A number of studies have shown that implementing a cognitive-behavioural intervention is better than relaxation training and no intervention control at decreasing teachers’ stress levels (Tunnecliffe, Leach, & Tunnecliffe, 1986; Cecil & Forman, 1990).

A more recent study of 124 secondary school teachers in Hong Kong has found that providing teachers with cognitive-behavioural stress management training to be more effective than a waitlist control at getting teachers to use more stress management behaviours, and therefore reducing the level of their occupational stress (Leung, Chiang, Chui, Mak, & Wong, 2011). Moreover, when faced with life difficulties such as bereavement and mental health concerns, teachers may however benefit from help provided by a professional counsellor. Psychological help such as EAP counselling services have in fact been recommended for teachers who report a high level of job stress (Yang, Ge, Hu, Chi, & Wang, 2009).

Mental wellness education and psychological support for employees in high stress environments such as teachers and nurses are instrumental in the battle against burnout and staff turnover.