Learning to say no takes practice

yes - notepad & pen

According to a recent Expedia survey, “happiness is a beach vacation” (it says a lot about our work-life balance). But we can’t all hop on a plane and ferry ourselves to the gili islands the minute we’re feeling stressed at work.

Even though stress affects our immune system, life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing, and increases our risk for stroke and heart attacks. Recent research indicates that stress disrupts the body’s ability to store and use fat cells for those with an unhealthy body mass index. Basically, stress ain’t good.

This makes it all the more important that we have effective strategies for dealing with stress, such as exercise and relaxation techniques. Regular dosage of our preferred heart-raising activity – yoga, running, mixed martial arts – encourages muscle relaxation and circulation of those feel good hormones. Mindfulness techniques which focus on breathing and raise our awareness about our emotional states allow us to process our thoughts and feelings, helping us to relax and sleep.

Employees in high stress jobs also benefit when they seek out emotional support from friends and family. It’s the likely reason why employees with friends at work are those who say they enjoy their work. Conversely, not having social support increases the risk for depression.

But situations which stress us out at the workplace are often not fixable right there on the spot with the usual techniques for managing stress. Imagine taking your yoga mat and boxing gloves into a staff meeting. Now there’s a thought. No, seriously, exercise is not a panacea for solving workplace conflict or addressing a loss of control over the distribution of workload or the outcome of our job.

Here are some other things to consider:

The good, the bad, and the silent treatment
There’s no question that workplace harrassment puts us at risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A zero-tolerance policy and workplace violence prevention policy are good to have (read our earlier post on “what counts as a supportive workplace?“).

But it’s even more important that we recognize the signs of being bullied (cyber or otherwise). Recognizing that the silent treatment, sarcastic criticism, and sabotage are signs of passive-aggressive behaviours is as important as knowing what to do with this “sugar-coated hosility” when we encounter it. We would rather be bullied than ignored at work.

But do something about it, we should. We may not have the option of totally cutting the passive-aggressive co-worker out of our lives, but we can put limits on our interactions with them and acknowledge our own feelings about their behaviours (and a number of other things to address the situation).

Poor control over work distribution and outcome
Maybe work isn’t your happy place. There is a lack of fairness at the workplace. Your contributions go unrecognized. The workload is unevenly distributed. Your feedback gets listened to but not actually heard. Micromanagement is the new black. All of the above?!

  • You may want to consider delegating some of your work. Apparently we don’t have superpowers and need to give away our cape. Not an innate skill. We need to practice. Try these tips out. Here’s a how-to.
  • You will need to practice saying no (here are some more tips), to use the right body language, and to express yourself clearly (here’s a fact sheet with practical advice).
  • You can provide feedback about your workplace culture at your annual review. It takes time for bosses to value productivity, not time spent at the office.

When you’ve done all these, you can sit back, put your feet up, and take a look at these life hacks to make most of your time and these tips for using Google to make your life a little bit less effortful.

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Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.

Maybe work isn’t your happy place

Maybe work isn't your happy place

Not long ago, a study reported that a substantial number of people were found to have lower levels of stress hormone while at the office than when at home. This finding downplays the stress at the workplace. To be more precise, men were the ones more likely to experience stress at the office than home.

But it doesn’t discount the fact that people still experience stress at the workplace. As many as 20% of those polled in a 2013 HPB survey reported high levels of job stress. That’s 2 in every 10 employees. And almost half of those polled in a separate survey (comprising at least 400 employees per country) reported a lack of job satisfaction. More disturbing is the finding that over half of those polled in a recent LinkedIn survey would consider sacrificing a workplace friendship for promotion. That spells for a happy workplace. Not.

Although job stress often surfaces from employees managing heavy workloads, there are many other factors which impact employee engagement. Things which managers and supervisors play an enormous role in shaping. Things like team dynamics, personality clashes, and leadership styles.

Here are 10 ways line managers can help:

1. Social support
A Gallup poll found that engaged employees were more likely to have friends at the workplace. Line managers play a role in cultivating a work culture which encourages friendships. Look here for tips.

2. Work-life balance
Employees are more likely to be engaged and productive when their leaders value sustainable ways of working, which includes supporting work-life balance. A HBR survey reveals that it’s important for leaders to practice what they preach. It’s a tune that’s getting more airtime these days.

3. Find ways to get active
We all know why we should invest in moderate to vigorous exercise three times a week and incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains in our daily diet. It does wonders for our cardiovascular health. It protects against dementia and certain types of cancer. But workplace health programmes may not always stress a key benefit (no pun intended). Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Here’s an incentive for line managers to support the Get Fit programme at the office!

4. Find time to relax
Research supports the view that engaging in relaxation activities helps us manage our stress. A recent INSEAD study shows that spending just 15 minutes focused on breathing enabled people to make better decisions. Another recent study shows that creative pursuits are an effective way to recharge and destress. Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998). Findings that extroverts relax more easily than introverts suggests that we need to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all way to relax. 

5. Assertive communication
Exercise is an excellent way to get back into a good mood. But we’re probably not going to be running a treadmill or smashing a ball against the wall when given extra responsibilities at work. There are no appropriate moment to go “en garde”. Or signal for us to put on the boxing gloves. We can however learn to say no. Line managers have the responsibility to encourage staff to practice assertive communication.

6. Sleep is underrated
Sleep is not just for those who party hard. It’s for those who want to learn, solve problems, remember things, and make good decisions (here’s the science). What’s more, sleep is the anti-aging treatment. But you’ve heard this many times over. But did you know that exposure to blue light which your smart devices emit in large quantities makes it more difficult to get to sleep quickly or to get good quality sleep? It’s time to tell your staff to switch off their devices and get more REM and deep sleep – essential for enhancing job performance (tips at the end of this article).

7. Use your Employee Assistance Programme!
Family conflict affects relationships at the office, not just at home. A recent study shows that conflict at the home causes employees to react negatively to co-workers and to use fewer adaptive strategies (e.g., social support, assertiveness) at work. Another study shows that mood affects productivity. Those coping with a difficult life event (e.g., bereavement, illness in the family) make more mistakes when adding two numbers together than those not experiencing such an event. Those coping with life events also report lower happiness and productivity ratings than their peers. Managers in organizations with an EAP can encourage staff to use their EAP to tackle work-related and/or personal problems. Recent research indicates that “organizational support programs, which aim to improve employee well-being, are not being used by the employees who need them most”.

8. Training evaluation
A 1997 study showed that an in-house time management training programme, which enhanced employee’s capacity for impulse control and for regulating their own emotions, had a 1989% return in a 3-week period. It’s noteworthy that employees were not given generic, practical tips but instead encouraged to manage their emotions. Most importantly, the organization measured outcomes in terms of employee performance (e.g., rated by co-workers, line managers) not satisfaction with the training programme.

9. Organizational structure
It’s not hard to see how workplace harrassment can negatively impact employee well-being and physical health, in turn affecting productivity and employee engagement. But a recent review of the literature indicates that workplace harrassment does not arise from just personality clashes alone. The way an organization is structured may make it easier for bullying to take place. So it’s ever more important now than before that senior management explicitly supports respectful behaviour.

10. Self-care
Fair bosses are the best! They produce engaged employees and productive companies. But they’re prone to burn out (evidence here). So self-care is imperative for managers and supervisors. That is, doing all the above themselves. This includes: “getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office”

Bosses, take note!

Happy National Day!

Forty-nine today! Other than celebrating by doing all the nationalistic things like eating, shopping, and movie-watching, brainstorming for 50th celebration ideas, indulging in a staycation, it’s also a good time to think about the ways in which you can rebalance your work and life.

Happy Birthday, Singapore!

Here are 4 ideas to get you started:

1. Make use of technology
Smart phones and tablets aren’t just for surfing the net, checking email and facebook, messaging, reading, and playing games. They’re also good platforms for helping us keep diaries about how much we sleep, whether we’re getting our daily recommended allowance of vitamins and fruits and veggies, and for tracking our thoughts and emotions. Apple recommends these apps to help us stay fit and maintain healthy eating, while Google has a list of 10 free health and fitness apps. And these mental health apps (mostly free) come highly recommended by PsychCentral.

2. Use household shortcuts
There are ways to get the house cleaned without spending the whole weekend on it. Unless you enjoy it, that is. If not, these life hack websites have good solutions for tidying, cooking, and other household chores. And here’s a few more.

3. Get a hobby
One way to ensure guarantee that you get off work on time is to have a hobby. There is research evidence to support it: Employees with a creative hobby are more productive at work than peers without one. Try light painting (night photography) with the fireworks on display this Saturday at the Esplanade or Clifford Pier: Nat Geo has useful tips. Here’s a list of useful websites for those relocating to Singapore, and some recreation resources for those looking for something different. Secret Singapore also has ideas for those wanting to try something really new.

4. Spend time with family and friends
Out of ideas of what to do on the weekend? Tired of meeting friends over brunch and high tea? Try an activity instead. There’s lots going on in the coming months!