There’s no sugar-coating it

Food is a national pastime.

We all scream for ice cream!

CNN Travel names chicken rice, char kway teow, wantan mee, chai tow kuay, and chill crab as the top 5 foods locals can’t live without (surprisingly, katong laksa didn’t make it to the top 5; it’s listed at #14). According to a 2012 Mastercard survey, locals spend as much as $262 in US dollars dining out each month. There are more local food blogs than supermarkets and more than just a few food apps (e.g., Hungrygowhere, BurpplePicky). With almost every other person a foodie, that’s quite a lot for a place less than half the size of Greater London and nearly double in its population density.

It’s not the problem of junk food here. Rather, if the National Nutrition Survey in 2010 is anything to go by, nearly half the nation dines out at their local friendly hawker centre more than four times a week (up from 40% in 2004: National Nutrition Survey by HPB). In addition to the problem of too much salt from eating out, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and vascular illness, the most recent data reveal a disturbing trend of overeating. As many as 6 in 10 locals consume too many calories, leaving them vulnerable to the risk of obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. In reality, stress has a bit of a starring role, while sugar plays a vital supporting role.

We typically respond to a stressful situation at work with cortisol (since we can neither fight our co-workers nor flee from our emails, much as we try to sometimes), which encourages our appetite and desire for high energy foods — simple carbohydrates (find the science explained herehere and here). We often think of these as just sugar and honey. But in reality, they often wear clever disguises from white rice, breads, cake, muffins, cupcakes, doughnuts, and biscuits, to hot and cold desserts. And an overconsumption of these lovely, fragrant, heart-warming energy-dense foods increases the risk of impaired insulin function (read this to understand the link between overeating and diabetes).

And while prolonged exposure to stress leads to chronic inflammation, it should be recognized that sugar also contributes to inflammation. In fact, it is sugar in all its various nefarious disguises which is responsible for populating the blood stream with small, dense LDL cholesterol particles. And it’s these small, dense LDL particles which raise our risk of coronary heart disease (read this for a full review of the factors for cardiovascular disease).

So yes, stress and sugar are the bad guys (here’s an earlier blog entry on thwarting the ill intentions of sugar). But there is a simple solution. It’s called exercise.

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When should you tell your colleague to “take a holiday”?

workplace stress

Going by the elevated stress levels reported by employees in Singapore (read our earlier post) and lack of job satisfaction bemoaned by many in the local workplace (discussed in an earlier post too), it would appear that for some employees, the answer may be now!

According to a recent workplace survey, as many as 94% of bosses held the view that employees shouldnot bring work home. It doesn’t add up. Or bosses say “have work-life balance”. But they hand their employees more work than that which can be completed within working hours. Clearly, there are going to be instances where bosses say one thing and do another. It also doesn’t help when bosses continue working outside office hours. 

Numerous studies have highlighted the effects of chronic stress on employees’ emotional and physical well-being. Prolonged exposure to stress weakens the immune system, causing employees to be absent from work and less productive when working with a stuffy head and sniffy nose at work (read this Fortune article). Burnout leads to higher staff turnover and elevated business costs. More crucially, it may mean losing valuable employees. It’s the reason why some companies have started to insist on employees taking their annual leave.  

Depression is explained as a condition in which an individual experiences “a persistent and pervasive low mood that is not affected by external circumstances”, with the individual losing interest in activities which once interested them. And it may escape the notice of most bosses, but the fact is that employees who are experiencing burnout, may be actually experiencing symptoms of depression (here’s an explanation of the two terms). 

But what can you do about it?

Here are some steps you can take:

1. Find out if you and/or your colleagues are experiencing burnout.
Complete this self-assessment questionnaire.

2. Recognise signs and symptoms of depression.
Mayo Clinic has a fact sheet on burnout. Understand that someone with depression cannot “cheer up” and “get over it“. It’s not just about feeling “sad“. One in 17 has depression in Singapore (find out more). 

3. Raise awareness about burnout at your workplace.
This article on Understanding and Avoiding Burnout has tips for managers. 

4. Provide a supportive environment for preventing burnout at your workplace.
Here’s a systematic list of things you and your organization can do to help.

5. Reach out to your colleagues.
Find the right words, but don’t forget to take care of your own emotional well-being.

World Mental Health Day. It’s two months and 19 days away. What are you doing on World Mental Health Day?

Waving the magic wand at work

What employees want

According to the results of a Gallup poll reported last year in a Straits Times article “S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“ (8 Dec 2013), only 10% of employees polled reported feeling passionate and motivated about their work. Given the benefits of engaged employees (including lower absenteeism and turnover), it seems in the interests of employers to do more to boost engagement among employees.

An older study on local employees conducted in 2011 indicated monetary remuneration (including benefits) to be a key motivating factor. While fair compensation is cited as an important factor for creating a conducive working environment for employees (“What really motivates employees?”, Forbes, 26 Nov 2013), it’s important for employers to be aware that monetary rewards have their limitations. This is because monetary incentives reduce employees’ intrinsic motivation — referred to as the crowding out effect (Frey, 1997).

Extrinsic motivation produces relatively lower levels of task performance (read about those research findings here). Employees whose performance is motivated by a tangible reward, such as financial incentives, tend to put in less effort compared to employees driven by intrinsic motivation (assuming fair salary compensation). In contrast, recognition for work well done and guidance for career advancement in the form of coaching and mentorship are on employees’ wish list (see this list on Gallup). Not surprisingly, the study on 500 workers cited above finds local employees expressing the desire for their employers to provide and support a collaborative work environment.

According to Gallup, engaged employees are those with friendships at work. A 2012 study by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training articulates one of the key drivers for employee engagement — it is the relationship an employee has with his or her immediate supervisor. Building trust and rapport into the supervisor-employee relationship takes practice (here are some useful tips and guidelines), but reaps benefits in the long term.

More importantly, it is not necessary to assume that managers have an innate ability to listen and communicate effectively. Neither do all supervisors know how to provide feedback to employees. And mentorship requires bosses to genuinely care about their team. These are skills to be acquired through training and then honed for many more years to come.

There’s no magic wand for motivating employees. Dangling carrots can help initially. But recognizing work well done and providing guidance to achieve optimal performance will more likely to lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Exercising. What’s the fuss all about?

Exercise that doesn't feel like exercise!

Yes, we know. It’s good to be physically active (here’s why, in case you didn’t already know). And yes. We should all be doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. That’s an average of 20 minutes every day.

That’s about the amount of walking we would get from walking to and from the MRT station or bus stop. Especially if you have to change trains at Dhoby Ghaut.

But having a transportation routine that minimises walking might mean that some of us don’t get the minimum physical activity requirements. What’s the alternative? Doing a weekly 75 minutes of cardiovascular activity in which you reach your optimal heart rate for burning calories. Or some combination of both. Walking the park connectors for 20 minutes after dinner 3 times a week and running up enough stairs for a 10 minute work out every other day, would meet said requirement.

But knowing what to do isn’t the issue. The problem is actually doing it.

When we were hunters and gatherers, we probably wouldn’t have had to attend a lunchtime talk on the health benefits of exercise or signed up for free bootcamp and gym classes. We’d get fit simply from planting vegetables, picking up duck eggs, and paddling to fetch food from the sea.

That’s not to suggest that we need to start doing that now. But there is the possibility that we can be physically active without having to “exercise”. It would certainly make these excuses go away: I don’t have time, I don’t have the determination or discipline, I don’t like getting sweaty, Exercise is boring, and I don’t know how to exercise (so says the CDC). Sound familiar?

We are much more likely to prioritize time for something that we’re interested to learn, be it a self-defense skill like judo, fencing, and wushu or a useful skill such as horse riding. More so when it’s a skill that we’ve challenged ourselves to learn (and paid membership fees for) like yoga (here’s a comprehensive listing).

It definitely won’t be boring.

You won’t need willpower to get to class.

You wouldn’t care whether exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, regardless of whether your BMI or cholesterol is puts you in the high risk category or not (as explained here).

And while you’re busy thinking about steps and music in line dancing (various community centres host social events) and swing dancing (swing dance, what’s that?), sweating will probably be the last thing on your mind. You’ll be surprised how much walking is involved in west coast swing (take classes here) and how much core you need to engage for argentine tango (milongas listed here).

Getting active doesn’t require a manual. It involves doing something fun. Like trampolining and sailing.

Of course, it helps to set concrete goals (Oprah has tips) and mobilize your troops (otherwise known as your friends) for social support. It also helps if you’re not also trying to use self-control in other aspects of your life, such as trying not to eat doughnuts (according to research reported in this APS Observer article). With people stuck with the double whammy of lowering dietary intake and increasing physical output, bootcamps and gym classes come with complimentary workout task masters.

But it’s easier when it’s something that you enjoy. Like shopping…for clothes to go with your new hobby.

Managing personality at the workplace

Are you introverted or extraverted?

Personality is recognized as “a dynamic and organized set of characteristics possessed by a person that uniquely influences his or her cognitions, motivations, and behaviours in various situations” (Krauskopf & Saunders, 1994). Experts recognize five personality dimensions, on each of which each one of us can differ.

These Big 5 personality traits, comprising conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness, are assessed through psychometric tests (test yourself here). And these traits have been found across cultures in numerous industrialized communities.

That’s a somewhat different concept of personality described elsewhere, such as the qualities which characterize the ideal employee. For example, this Forbes article lists among others, intelligence, autonomy (independence), detail orientation, and conscientiousness. Or the five qualities most sought after when hiring employees: professionalism, high-energy, confidence, ability to self-monitor, and intellectual curosity (read that article here).

Psychometric tests can be useful to give employers insight into candidates’ aptitude for particular roles — extroverts are more likely to thrive in jobs which require them to interact regularly with other people (e.g., sales positions) than introverts. Well, that’s not exactly rocket science. People who do not feel energized (and in fact feel overstimulated) by social interactions are less likely to gravitate towards sales or PR jobs (for those not in the know, read this illustrated guide, the “23 Signs You’re Secretly An Introvert“, and the “15 Unmistakable, Outrageously Secret Signs You’re an Extrovert“). No need for a psychometric test.

But these personality assessment tools can provide invaluable insights into employees’ strengths and therefore be useful in working out issues concerning team dynamics and productivity. That would be true, at least if candidates and employees were subjected to a psychometric test shown to test what it aims to test (external validity) and shown to produce results when administered more than once (test-retest reliability). But personality tests commonplace at the workplace may not live up to expectations (read this Guardian article and this academic review).

Assuming conscientious (see, knowing your personality traits can be useful) employers and HR managers implement valid and reliable psychometric tests, there remains the question of how these five dimensions impact the workplace:

1. Conscientiousness
This trait is highly associated with academic success and professional performance (Psychology Today explains why). That hardworking people are more productive at the workplace is both a robust finding and an intuitive one.

2. Agreeableness
While among women, this trait does not have a reliable relationship with employee performance. However, men who say they are less willing to get on with others and who are more willing to be critical of others appear to be more successful career-wise. Getting ahead as a guy therefore appears to be equated to being less “nice” (read this blog and this review). At least in a US corporate setting, according to the research by Judge and colleagues.

3. Neuroticism
It appears that being in a negative emotional state often (individuals who have high neuroticism scores) is associated with lower job satisfaction. Which may explain a lot of things about that co-worker who never seems to be happy about anything.

At the same time, it’s important to get those colleagues who are experiencing emotional distress to get help. And they’re not only in the financial industry.

4. Extraversion
No surprises here: Extroverts are more likely to be in jobs with social interactions. But extroverts are also found to express job satisfaction and associated with leadership positions (but that is not to say it is impossible to find introverts in CEO positions).

5. Openness
Open individuals are associated with positive training outcomes: They are more likely to say that they benefitted from a training course. Which makes sense of course. Being open to new experiences (including new ideas and new ways of doing things) likely makes one more receptive to being trained for new skills or for receiving new knowledge.

Given that personality traits are stable across the lifespan, except neuroticism which on the whole declines as we age (we’re less grumpy as we get older), it pays to get the right employee in the first place. And when working stuck with Disdainful, Disparaging and Derisive, it’s useful to know that it’s probably not about you. It may just be all about them.