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.

Financial stress

A recent Straits Times article (“More finding it hard to pay credit card debt”, 24 Sept 2013) reports a rise in the proportion of individuals who had not made a minimum payment of their credit card bill in two months. Housing loans have also been on a steady incline over the last three years, according to an Economist article (“The perils of a gilded age”, 3 August 2013) which cites figures from the Credit Bureau.

Financial stress impacts workplace productivity: Employees burdened with personal financial problems spend time which could otherwise be better spent on work responsibilities solving these problems. It’s not only a question of 1) assessing one’s financial situation and 2) managing available resources, in order to 3) set goals such as setting side a proportion of income for savings and investment – the three steps outlined in the local online financial education programme at http://www.moneysense.gov.sg.

But it’s also a question of setting aside time and making it a priority as part of self-care. As Irving (2012) points out, engaging in positive financial behaviours contributes to life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. Time spent on financial planning is time well spent!

Managing your family’s finances

While it is widely acknowledged that personal financial problems can be a major source of stress to employees, the provision of financial literacy education at the workplace is typically an area overlooked in corporate wellness programmes.

Concern about personal financial problems explains not only 50% of overall stress levels reported by employees (Bailey, Woodiel, Turner, & Young, 1998), stress from personal financial problems also results in decreased employee productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism. As Garman, Leech, and Grable (1996) suggest, employees may take time out from their workday to deal with personal financial issues, and employ strategies for coping with stress (e.g., smoking) have impact their physical and mental health, and in turn, their job performance. Other findings indicate the prevalence of poor financial behaviours among office workers to be relatively high (Joo & Grable, 2011).

Despite this, financial literacy education has yet to be integrated into local corporate wellness programmes which focus typically on healthy lifestyles. Healthier food (Straits Times, 10 Sept 2013) and exercising at the work station (Straits Times, 16 Sept 2013) are all the rage at the moment. While advice about planning and managing family resources may not be readily available at the workplace, independent financial advice is available at blogs like Dollars & Sense, and financial calculators at Money Sense SG can be useful for sorting out a household budget. And in this day and age, iphone and android apps for managing your money even take the stress out of keeping track of your spending.

With the appreciating dollar, it’s never too late to start making some good financial decisions!

Finding new friends

It has been well-established that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. Ozbay and colleagues (2007) observe that high quality social support is associated with not only better physical health and psychological well-being, but increased productivity. As a Gallup report shows, employees with a close friend at the workplace reported themselves to be more engaged at work.

Building a network of friends and family who will provide high quality social support may however not be so easy if you’ve just joined a new organization or moved to a new office in a foreign land. Establishing a network of friends in the homeland after being away for a while can be a daunting task, although facebook makes it easy to reconnect with long lost friends from school, and meetup has made it even easier to bridge new connections. Learning a new language or joining a dance class can be a good way to make friends who’ll share your passion. Alternatively, learning a new skill, participating in a sport, or volunteering with seniors or a dog shelter can help with the task of forging new bonds. Not to mention the benefits of learning something new!

But for the busy people who haven’t time for hobbies, building a social network of friends at the office can be a good place to start. Here’s a list of things to try:

1. Join the lunch crowd. Round up some colleagues for lunch outside the office if there isn’t already a group that gets lunch together!

2. Organize social events. If getting your colleagues to have dinner once a month is interfering with your current low-salt, low-oil, low-carb diet, try organizing a Saturday morning walk at the Southern Ridges!

3. Start an interest group. A weekly game of badminton could be too tame for some: Instead, incentivize your colleagues to sign up for sailing, fencing, paintball, yoga, and rock climbing through Groupon by promising them food and drink afterwards.

4. Get your RDA of culture. The regular rotation of exhibits at the Flower Dome, National Museum, Singapore Art Museum, and Art and Science Museum means that there’s always something new to see.

With the one-for-one entry offer for the current Princely Treasures from the House of Lichtenstein exhibit at the National Museum with a Today newspaper coupon, and da:ns Festival, Oktoberfest, and Hairspray the musical all coming to town in October 2013, there’s really no excuse for not galvanizing your social network into action!

Can’t get enough of coffee

There’s yet another place in town for the coffee connoisseur. Along with the established Highlander Coffee at Kampong Bahru, 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru, Papa Palheta at Tyrwhitt Road and Loysel’s Toy at Kampong Bugis by the Kallang Basin, coffee beans and brunch are on offer at Common Man Coffee Roasters on Martin Road. There’s also terribly good coffee at The Plain Cafe, and don’t get me started on Vietnamese drip coffee.

It’s certainly the answer to a productive day at work. Too much coffee though, might result in difficulties deciding which things on a long to-do list to actually do, a propensity to enthusiastically vacuum all carpet surfaces and wash dishes that don’t need washing till the wee hours, an uncanny ability to wax lyrical about just about anything, and in general, behaviour not unbecoming of the squirrel in Ice Age. Of course, perhaps this doesn’t happen to everyone.

But nonetheless, it’s of interest to know if all this coffee is actually good for us. A literature review in 2003 by Nawrot and colleauges indicates that moderate caffeine intake up to 400mg a day is not associated with increased health risks including osteoporosis and cancer, although recommendations also include limiting caffeine intake to under 300mg for women. These findings are reiterated in a subsequent review of epidemiological research. The authors of this 2006 review, Higdon and Frei, also document an association between cardiovascular disease risks and coffee consumption.

A recent summary of epidemiological studies and meta-analysis by Butt and Sultan further clarifies that caffeine consumption raises serum cholesterol. As such, moderating one’s caffeine intake has been suggested for individuals with hypertension, as well as children and older adults. In fact, this recent 2011 literature review suggests an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and the risk of some cancers or Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s assuming of course that one drinks coffee or tea in its purest form. Adding sugar and condensed milk to coffee or tea of course may undo the health benefits that caffeine is said to provide.

Interestingly, a recent study also reveals — in contrast to the USDA figures which puts caffeine in an espresso at about 77mg — that espressos on the Gold Coast in Australia had on average 106mg of caffeine. A fifth of the 97 espressos sampled in this 2007 study by Desbrow and colleagues had at least 120mg of caffeine. To consider the thought that the kopi o kosong gao that you’ve been overdosing on recently has much, much less caffeine than some of these espressos perhaps belongs in the category of unicorns, leprechauns and mermaids. 

More importantly, copious amounts of caffeine has deleterious effects on productivity. In a 2010 study by Rosekind and colleagues, employees reporting insomnia or insufficient sleep were found to be less productive than controls. Annual loss in fatigue-related productivity was estimated at US$1967 per employee. This is not surprising given that lack of sleep negatively impacts our capacity to learn and remember things.

The cognitive benefits are illustrated in Harvard Medical School educational videos about why sleep matters. Poor sleep which is linked to not only increased hunger and appetite and greater food consumption but also anxiety and depression — read this Mental Health Foundation (UK) report on why sleep matters — can have a profound effect on work performance.

Perhaps after you read this Huffington Post article (5 May 2013) on the 5 Things You Should Know About Sleep Health in the Workplace, you might want to switch over to light oolong. How about some 包種茶?

More life, less work

It appears that Singaporeans desire a slower pace of life (Straits Times, “Majority of Singaporeans want a slower pace of life”, 26 August 2013).

That Singaporeans want a more comfortable pace of life, less stress, and more family time (Today, “Singaporeans want ‘compassionate meritocracy’”, 26 August 2013) is a repeal not infrequently heard from other sources such as job surveys. A poll by JobCentral in 2012 found more than 60% of Singapore workers complaining about heavy workload and work stress. And it’s a repeating motif in the other job surveys conducted on Singapore respondents.

Accepting that 12- to 15-hour work weeks and working weekends are the expected work conditions for employees in industries with great performance pressure and elevated levels of stress, and that 40- to 50-hour or over 50-hour work weeks can be considered the norm (see a 2012 Hudson report), is not likely to spell for positive mental outcomes. It does not come as a surprise then to learn from the same report that the burnout rate in Singapore is somewhat higher than that in the region. Clearly there are practical ways to cope with stress. We’re well aware that eating healthily, having a physically active life, taking time out to relax, and investing in social and emotional support are all effective strategies to cope with stress.

But that’s easier said that done. Knowing that we should eat well and exercise is one thing. Doing it after the emotional drama which just unfolded in the last few continguous long shifts at work, isn’t quite so easy. When your body wants to recover by just hibernating the entire weekend away, who’s got the energy to cook a nice wholesome meal with buckwheat noodles in miso and then bounce down the park connector on in-line skates or bike, let alone walk around the neighbourhood playground with your exuberantly buoyant kids. Braving the crowd at the supermarket on the weekend or marching up to a lazy Saturday brunch takes energy which somehow you won’t have. Sign up for yoga class? Who would entertain such a ludicrous idea.

These are indeed adaptive coping strategies which we could put in place if we wanted to. But we could be sabotaging ourselves with maladaptive coping strategies at work. Training interventions aimed at teaching employees effective communication and to discern adaptive from maladaptive coping strategies for the workplace, could be helpful for employees experiencing performance pressure at the workplace.

And that’s all fine when life’s rosy at the home front. But coping with work demands and sandwich-generation caregiving responsibilities, as well as the unexpected twists and turns that appear on life’s meandering footpath, can make things a bit challenging even for emotionally resilient individuals. Seeking advice from someone trained to help manage personal crises could help bridge that little step away from burnout and towards recovery.

Healthy eating at the workplace

The vast majority of research on the efficacy of workplace interventions focus on the role of exercise and physical activity. Indeed, many studies show that educating employees about the mental, social, and physical health benefits of exercise leads to an increase in physical activity.

Implementing worksite exercise programmes which can range from recommending 1,000 steps a day to providing in-house aerobic and strength training during protected time over an extended period improves employees’ health: physical health benefits are better body mass index or BMI, blood pressure (BP), HDL cholesterol, body fat proportion, and waist circumference, while mental health benefits include improved psychological mood and wellbeing. These workplace interventions are influential in achieving greater productivity as employees report better job satisfaction and spend fewer days absent from work due to ill health.

In contrast, studies on healthy eating workplace interventions show more mixed results. The health benefits of eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables are well established for community samples. But compared to the benefits from workplace physical activity interventions, programmes which focus on healthy eating tend to achieve less dramatic results. A review by Anderson and colleagues (2009) indicates small though significant reductions in weight and improvements in BMI for 6 and 9 randomized controlled studies respectively. In another review, Mhurchu and colleagues (2010) suggest that changing the environment (e.g., providing healthy choices in the canteen), as well as educating employees about the benefits of healthy eating, does bring about dietary changes. Furthermore, few studies measure objective outcomes such as BMI or corporate outcomes such as absenteeism.

This may be because interventions which focus primarily on changing eating patterns are not as effective as those which increase physical activity and encourage healthy eating. Alternatively, other factors may be at play. A randomized controlled study by Barrington and colleagues (2012) shows that even at baseline (before any workplace intervention takes place), workers who report higher levels of stress show fewer healthy behaviours — a tendency to eat while doing other activities and less leisure-time exercise. Moreover, those unaware of preoccupied eating also eat fewer fruits and vegetables and more fast food.

Workplace interventions may need to consider the impact of stress levels and take steps to counter its effects on eating and exercise behaviours among employees. While a holistic approach which tackles food choices, physical activity, and stress management is commendable, it may also be important to provide employees with effective strategies for managing stress. A recent study showed that social support was not helpful for improving BMI, even though there was a positive correlation between workplace social support and physical activity/fruit-vegetable intake (Tamers et al., 2011). Instead, interventions which specifically target how employees manage their stress may be the way to go.

What’s the return on investment for EAPs?

“The typical analysis produces an ROI of between $3 and $10 dollars in return for every $1 dollar invested in the EA program.”

That is what Attridge and colleagues have reported for the Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA) in a 2009 research note, first published in their “Selecting and Strengthening Employee Assistance Programs: A Purchaser’s Guide” publication.

In a study of university employees with the majority having access to face-to-face EAP counselling services, Phillips (2004) found improvements in work productivity for 59% and 62% of 704 and 1,206 cases from 2002 and 2003 respectively. The data published in Employee Assistance Quarterly revealed an ROI of 3.5:1 and 4.3:1 in 2002 and 2003 respectively (Phillips, 2005).

Another empirical study sampling employees with access to face-to-face EAP counselling services demonstrated less absenteeism and improved work productivity for 50% of 882 cases (Kirk, 2006).

In a paper presentation at the 2003 APANIOSH Work, Stress and Health Conference, Attridge (2003) reported improved an average 43% gain in work productivity for 57% of 11,909 cases from a national EAP provider supplying counselling services mostly by telephone.

A more recent presentation at the 2007 Employee Assistance Professionals Association Annual Conference, Baker (2007) documented reduced presenteeism: Based on 3,353 cases from an national EAP provider supplying telephone counselling, low-productivity days were reduced from an average of 30 days to as few as 3.4 to 8.0 days, resulting in an average gain of 58% in work productivity.

In addition to recognition that effective EAPs produce greater work productivity, better employee engagement, less absenteeism, less presenteeism, and reduced turnover, it’s gratifying to know that the return on investment for EAPs isn’t different from that reported for corporate wellness programmes: Berry, Mirabito, & Baun reported in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article that “every dollar invested in the intervention yielded US$6 in health care savings”.