Learning, it’s no child’s play

IMG_7201

Our children’s learning starts early. These days, preschoolers are not only learning the fundamentals of maths and science, they’re learning to code. Parents who advocate the role of play in children’s development are likely to find themselves a somewhat rare and endangered species. Even though there are numerous benefits to encouraging children to play. Social and communication skills are some good examples.

But let’s not get distracted. Parents want to their kids to do well in school. And we know the home environment does contribute to children’s academic achievements.

It’s also important for parents to have high expectations of their kids.

Only thing is that, well, that might not be entirely true. A study hot off the press finds that unrealistically ambitious aspirations of parents can adversely impact their children’s academic performance. The findings of this 2015 study of 12,000 US school-aged students mirror those from an earlier study conducted on 3,530 school-aged students in Germany. So apparently, unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance“. And parental academic pressure appears to be leading to more and more children and teenagers experiencing chronic stressburnout, and depression.

So, what else are parents to do? Well, we can suggest a few relatively painless ways to boost your child’s performance:

1. Help them develop a homework habit 
A 2015 study finds that school-age students in Spain perform better on a standardized maths test when they complete their homework on their own and when their teachers set homework on a regular basis. In fact, these high achievers only spent 1 to 2 hours a day on their homework.

So, less is more (but only if homework is also a daily habit).

2. Encourage community and sports participation
It’s no surprise that exercise helps children learn better. Children concentrate better when they’re physically active, and their academic performance improves when they play sports. A more recent study finds that children who are lean and active perform better on cognitive tests.

But it may not just be about the physical health benefits of exercise. Even though exercise does help children sleep earlier and get better quality sleep (because tired children stay up late less, which according to a 2015 study, costs teenagers as many as 9.3 GCSE points per hour spent on youtube, TV, and computer games.

It could be that gaining better body awareness somehow helps our brains retain information better. In fact, a recent study finds that dancing not only alleviates depression, stress, fatigue, and headaches, but boosts self-esteem and self-confidence about solving everyday problems among young Swedish teenagers.

But there may be another reason why children involved in extracurricular activities in the community perform better in school. Experts argue that extracurricular opportunities work because they give children a chance to experience “a sense of accomplishing something“.

3. Eat breakfast with your kids
A 2015 study on 5,000 children 9- to 11-year-olds provides unequivocal evidence that healthy breakfasts make a difference to children’s academic performance. Having breakfast was found to be better than not having any. But having a breakfast of diary foods, cereal, fruit, and bread produced better students than a breakfast of empty calories — sweets (candy) and/or crisps (chips). And having fruit and veggies during the day was also associated with better school performance.

4. Spend time with your kids
It’s common sense. But there’s research evidence to back this one up. A 2015 study finds that successful children come from families who recognised their children’s talents early, but also helped to motivate their children to work hard at practising and improving their skills.

Conversely, another recent study finds that children’s mental well-being is associated with time pressures experienced by their parents — children whose parents have difficulties fitting everything they need to be do into their day, are more likely to have mental health concerns.

Spending time with children, especially teenagers, also helps parents understand their children’s daily experiences. As a result, their children have less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to be better psychologically adjusted.

Advertisements

Not happy at work? Try some different solutions

IMG_7268.jpg

A 2015 study finds that working long hours (specifically, 55 hours or more a week) is related to a higher risk of stroke and coronary heart disease (more details here). Another 2015 study with data from over 138,000 employees reveals a link between high stress jobs and an elevated risk of stroke. But the more worrying finding is that high job demands lead to poor mental wellbeing, according to a 2015 study of 12,000 workers in Sweden.

And the irony is that working long hours doesn’t increase productivity. So what does?Here are some other things to try:

1. Vote for a water fountain
It’s not a new age suggestion for improving fengshui at the office. Sounds which mask speech in open-plan offices can make conversations by colleagues less distracting, creating a conductive working environment. Rather than white noise, a new study indicates an advantage in using natural sounds such as flowing water. Specifically, the study finds mountain stream sounds to be most effective at masking speech sounds. When your workplace budgets for a coffee machine, why not lobby for a water fountain instead?

2. Grow these plants at the office
A 2015 study finds that taking a mini break from your computer — glancing at a rooftop flower meadow for as little as 40 seconds — boosts concentration. Other studies find that plants in the office can effect as much as a 15% productivity boost. There’s also evidence that our cognitive skills are better preserved in “green working environments” — offices with good ventilation and low levels of indoor pollutants (e.g., formaldehyde fumes from varnishes, plastics, and particleboard in office furniture). In fact, our ability to make strategic decisions and to respond to a crisis situation is enhanced in such a green office. It could be hard to make structural changes to your office building, but you could get a pot or two of Spathiphyllum (aka Peace lily) and Philodendron, both of which have been shown to absorb pollutants by NASA (yes, NASA). And a mini mid-morning break (e.g., spent watering and checking on your plants) has been shown to improve employees’ energy, boosting their productivity (here‘s the science explained)!

And if you lack green fingers, a multi-tasking bouquet of Chrysanthemums can decorate your desk and brighten your day while it cleans the air!

3. Reduce your commute time
It turns out that longer commutes to work contribute to poorer life satisfaction, according to a 2014 study. But the negative effect traffic has on our mental well-being can be mitigated by a familiar factor: Physical activity improves our life satisfaction. A 2015 study links stressful commutes (e.g., heavy traffic, road safety for cyclists, commutes above 35 minutes) to a higher risk of burnout. Opting for a shorter route (e.g., taking a direct bus rather than driving in heavy traffic to work) could be a holistic strategy for managing work stress. Other options include having access to flexible commuting arrangements, although it’s worth noting that research indicates that telecommuting is most beneficial when used in moderation.

4. Widen your social circle
Pay cuts and fewer promotion opportunities during an economic downturn apparently doesn’t automatically result in less motivated employees. It turns out that apart from having purpose at work, social connections at the workplace are a key factor which helps employees manage such challenges. It may be time to organize a group Safari Run at the Zoo and check out the cute newborn giraffe or for the Yolo Run… or try skating at the Christmas Wonderland ice rink at Gardens by the Bay in December (Admission is free!)… or plan for some chill out time at the Laneway Festival in the new year…

5. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
A 2015 study shows that rudeness is contagious: individuals at the receiving end of rudeness are more likely to show rudeness to other people. In contrast, the practice of avoiding offensive language encourages creativity among teams made up of both male and female employees, according to this study about “political correct” speech. Research indicates that positive outcomes are brought about by encouraging employees to suggest ideas for improvement, rather than articulating mistakes or problems at the workplace. Yet other research shows that words of encouragement have been shown to raise productivity by as much as 20% while reducing employees’ mistakes by 40%. As the saying goes, money ain’t everything.

6. Don’t open email after work
A new study shows that we get angry when we read an email that’s negatively worded or which requires a lot of our time outside office hours. And the people who desire work-life balance are most likely to be adversely affected by such emails. Solutions to the problem include equipping employees with strategies for effective electronic communication. But training endeavours take time and require management support. In the meantime…there’s an easy way to avoid the problem — don’t read your emails!

7. Find fulfilment in your work
Employees who feel that their work is meaningful are more likely to have better mental health. Research published in 2015 supports earlier findings that emotional attachment to work is important for reducing absenteeism and enhancing productivity. Questions to ask yourself include, “Am I making good use of my strengths in my job?”, “Am I learning at my job?”, “How am I contributing at work?”…  Not getting any answers? Work through these steps from www.fastcompany.com to find enlightenment.

8. Charity begins at the workplace
Working for a good cause improves productivity as much as 30%. Not everyone wants to share their pay with proceeds to a charity. But a 2015 study finds that when individuals choose to make a lumpsum or performance-based donation to a social cause of their choosing, they’re much more conscientious at the task at hand. So providing your team with the option to donate to a good cause can help motivate and energise them.

9. Provide mental health resources
Tight deadlines and difficult working relationships aren’t the only contributing factors to burnout. A 2014 study finds that difficulties at the home front also affect employees’ mental well-being. Because “mental health in the workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum“, it’s important that employees have access to training and counselling resources to cope with work-family conflict and parenting/relationship concerns.

 

5 Places to Visit When You’re Feeling Stressed

5 Places to De-stress in Singapore

It’s finally the holidays! Hooray!

You’ve finally managed to get 5 minutes to yourself. To arrange to catch up with some friends. To space out over lunch with your colleagues. To sleep in on the weekend. To enjoy the commute now that the roads are pleasantly clear, even during peak hours.

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can to reset your balancing act of juggling work and life. And re-charge yourself.

There’s plenty of research about what helps us adapt well in the face of life’s challenges. What helps us bounce back when we experience set-backs, things that cause emotional upheavals, even the minor intrusions onto our otherwise happy demeanor. Factors which help include being able to make realistic plans and carry them out, knowing what your strengths and abilities are, being aware and able to manage your emotions, and having problem solving skills (from The Road to Resilience: APA).

But It also helps if you also make the effort on a regular basis to manage your stress levels. That means spending time in green spaces, getting regular exercise and building physical activity in our routine, spending quality time on strengthening social connections with our families and friends, creating time for relaxation routines (yes, even walking around the neighbourhood counts), and investing in creative pastimes, even if it’s a passive appreciation of culture and natural history.

Here are some ideas to kick start your journey! Not only can you do all of the above if you go with your family and friends, but you’ll be glad you went because these gems won’t be here at for very long:

1. Biddadari
This 93ha leafy ex-cemetery, which currently is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, squirrels, and tembusu trees, will become a housing estate with the the first underground air-conditioned bus interchange on the island in a few years. Visit this forgotten woodland to see rarely sighted birds like the Oriental scops owl, Blue-winged pitta, and Indian cuckoo, as well as regular residents like the Lineated Barbet and the Finlayson or variable squirrel, which can only be found in the area.

Getting there: The forest is next to Mount Vernon. Exit at Woodleigh MRT or take bus number 100, 135, or 155 and stop on Upper Aljunied Road.

2. Bukit Brown
An eclectic and fascinating collection of Chinese graves which include those of well-known figures from the early immigrant local Chinese community is just one feature of this 233ha sprawling cemetery. Take a tour through history at this heritage site (maps available at bukitbrown.org), or enjoy the melodious song of the Straw-headed bulbul and White-rumped sharma and agile antics of the Common tailorbird and White-breasted Kingfisher at this urban oasis (find out more the birds at Bukit Brown here).

Getting there: Bus services 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, and 855 will get you to Adam Road. Head for Sime Road and the main entrance is after Lor Halwa. If you’re driving there, Lor Halwa can also be accessed through University Road (off Dunearn Road), which continues as Kheam Hock Road.

3. Pulau Ubin
Current plans to protect the diverse wildlife and eroding shoreline mean that this island should stay a haven for flora and fauna for a while. But the ever-changing landscape in Singapore (including her smaller islands) also serves as a reminder that it’s good to enjoy the kampung feeling at this small island while it’s here.

Seagrasses, coral, and the Horseshoe crab and Fiddler crab are among the natives to be found among the mangrove trees during low tide at Chek Jawa. Visit House No. 1 just inside the entrance to Chek Jawa for a good view of the only remaining fireplace in Singapore. And you might just find a toothless wild boar trying to make friends with your food near Chek Jawa.

Getting there: Take a bum boat from Changi Jetty for $2.50 (each way) and hire a bicycle when you get to the island.

4. Kampung Lor Buangkok
Current renovations are under way for some of the houses at the last kampung on the island. Visit this 1.22ha village to relive a forgotten era with their free-range chickens (although you can also spend all day peering at the freely roaming and magnificent jungle fowl at Pasir Ris Park if you’re than keen on chickens) and idle your afternoon away on a tree swing.

Getting there: The kampung is at 7 Lor Buangkok. Bus services 70, 103, and 854 take you to Yio Chu Kang Road. Stop at the bus stop near Church of St Vincent de Paul and cross the overhead bridge to the kampung.

5. Lim Chu Kang and Kranji farms
The lease for farming land in Lim Chu Kang will expire in a few years’ time. So that means, that the Lim Chu Kang farms may not be there for very long. But you can visit existing ones that have invested in sustainable farming along the Kranji Countryside. Their regular farmer’s market offers an enticing smorgasbord of locally made jams, chutneys, nut butters, sambals, and herb plants and seeds. The trees in the area are also home to industrious yellow-headed Baya weavers during the nesting season, while the otters and kingfishers at Sungei Buloh are only a stone’s throw away in the same neighbourhood.

Getting there: Bus service 975 will leave you at Lim Chu Kang Road. The farms at Neo Tiew Crescent are a bright and sunny 30min walk away. The nature reserve is best accessed on bus service 925 which stops on Neo Tiew Crescent, soon after the bridge on Kranji Way.

So, get out and enjoy the fresh air!

7 Ways to Manage Your Stress

Burnout in the city

  • Do you get to work, but not feel like working (or doing anything)?
  • Have lots to do, but feel way too tired to tackle any of it?
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand?
  • Feeling disillusioned or being cynical at work?
  • Find yourself being more critical or irritable with others at work?

Did you answer yes to the questions?

There are inevitably days when we’re not motivated at all to be productive. We get to work but leave the tasks that need doing for “later”. Or we get started but take ages doing the stuff that needs to be done.

There are definitely work days when we’re too tired to be our efficient and productive model selves. Possibly from staying up late or waking too early. Or both. And we dose ourselves with (more) caffeine to keep going.

But having a feeling of being fatigued and unmotivated about work more than just occasionally is something to sit up and pay attention to. Feeling overwhelmeddisillusioned, and/or cynical at work are also warning signs of job burnout. Being less able to see things from the perspective of others at work (when you usually do) should also set off an alarm bell or two.

For those feeling the effects of burnout, it may be time to speak to HR or a professional counsellor. Doing a self-assessment may also be a step in the right direction:

  • Test yourself here.
  • Find out if you’re experiencing job burnout here.
  • Analyze why you may be experiencing stress at your workplace here.

For those of us who think our insipid days at the office occur as frequently as solar eclipses, we might still want to pay attention to how we deal with stress at work and home. Here’s how we can improve our ranking as a happy nation:

1. Carve out undisturbed time for work
A substantial number among the 292 local senior managers and business owners polled in an international 2015 workplace survey, said that they were most productive before 9am. It’s not that we need to shift our work hours. Rather, we need to carve out a block of time for work that’s not disturbed by emails and distracting conversations.

2. Put an embargo on emails
Checking your email later in the day allows you to take advantage of chunking. It’s more efficient to reply to a batch of urgent emails than to reply to every email as it comes in. It also has improves your mental wellbeing. A 2014 study found that those who checked their inbox only 3 times a day felt less stressed than their peers who had no limit on the number of times they could check their inbox a day.

3. Get the optimal amount of sleep
Employees in sleep-deprived Singapore usually say they need more sleep. So it might come as a surprise that there’s actually an optimal amount of sleep we should get, if we’re to maintain our mental and physical well-being.

The US National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 report recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for working adults. A 2014 study which followed 3,760 adults in Finland for an average of 7 years, found that the optimal amount of sleep was 7 to 8 hours a night. Those who slept over 10 hours a night were just as likely to be absent from work due to sickness as those who slept less than 5 hours a night.

If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be time to review your sleep habits: “Do you have a regular sleep schedule? Do you have a bedtime routine? Do you make sleep a priority?” Get more tips here.

But it may be that your sleepless nights relate to work-life balance. A 2015 study found that employees increased their sleep by one hour a week and were more efficient in getting to sleep after participating in a 3-month programme designed to train managers and employees how to better manage work-family conflicts. You might not have access to such a training programme, but work-family concerns are issues worth reviewing. If only just to get more sleep and improve your mood. Small things like that.

4. Get happy by napping 
So okay, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will get their much needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Once every other week, you’ll mess up your routine with too much caffeine, partying too hard, overworking, getting tired and cranky infants to bed, looking after sick pets, and many other reasons too innumerable to list.

That’s when you should plan to invest in a good quality nap. A 2015 study showed that 2 half-hour naps reversed the adverse effects of having only 2 hours of sleep on our stress response and immune system. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started.

5. Walk around the problem
It’s easier to sleep when you exercise. That’s not new. Neither is the news that people with depression in their 20s tend not to engage in physical activities. What’s new is the finding that those who exercise more as they age are less likely to be depressed. That’s what was found by a 2014 study which followed 11,135 adults until the age of 50.

Similarly, another 2014 study finds that those who go for group nature walks report better mental well-being and less stress. This may be explained by a 2014 finding: Recent research suggests that exercise plays a protective role in shielding our brain from the adverse effects of chronic stress — depression (read this article to understand the science behind this mechanism). So, it may be time you explored a nature park near you. Try something new: Springleaf Nature Park or Kranji Wetlands.

6. Go nuts on fruits and veggies
You’ll have better mental health if you eat more fruits and veggies. That’s what a 2014 study on 14,000 respondents in England found. The majority of those who reported high levels of “optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, and good relationships” said that they ate 3 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with over half of them eating 5 or more servings daily.

It may be that those with high mental well-being tend to have healthy lifestyle habits. But if you’re mental well-being scores are low (find out here), you might want to ask yourself, how many portions of fruits and veggies am I eating every day?

7. Comfort yourself but not with high-fat foods
Research suggests that a high-fat diet can adversely affect our mental health. Animal studies link gut bacteria from a high-fat diet to an increase in anxiety behaviours, while studies on humans find that taking prebiotics and probiotics improves our stress response to threatening stimuli. What this means is that having good gut bacteria could potentially help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And eating less saturated fat and more fruits and veggies will encourage good bacteria to make a home in our gut.

We may not know if we’re the ones who suffer the most from stress (we do actually — those with a more variable heart rate will suffer more from stress, says a 2014 study — but it’s not easy for the average consumer to measure their heart rate variability). But at least we know a few things we can do to change it.

Don’t take the express train to Burnout!

Workaholics are being made to take their vacation leave.

Young children in Singapore are not getting adequate sleep. Less than half get the 9 hours of sleep they require for their growing brains and bodies. Employees in Singapore get on average 6 and a half hours of sleep, making them the third most sleep deprived city.

And workers in Singapore are “under happy”. In other words, they aren’t unhappy. But they’re also not happy. They’re not particularly optimistic about their future at their workplace and about being treated fairly at their workplace. At least that’s what a 2014 poll comprising 5,000 local respondents on national workplace happiness concludes.

It’s the usual work-life struggle. Too much work. Not enough life?

Apart from addressing the sources of stress at the workplace and home through assertive communication and stress management strategies, it’s important to reassess your priorities at work and home. After the Chinese New Year festivities (especially all that feasting), this might be a good time to re-start your year!

Research suggests that we’re more productive when we prioritize what’s really important to us (read this article from the Harvard Review Blog). It’s important to make time for your support network, family, friends, and personal interests.

Here are some ideas to help you recharge:

Decorate a cookie
1. Decorate cookies and make a kite!

National Parks hosts a picnic for families every last Saturday of the month at a different park each month. Bring your kids for kite-making and cookie-decorating in March at HortPark (online registration required at the beginning of the month).

Marina Bay Sands
2. Singapore International Jazz Festival 2015  

Ramsey Lewis, Blue Note, Bobby McFerrin, and Chris Botti are among the performers at this Marina Bay Sands jazz weekend, 6 to 8 March 2015. Get more details here.

3. A taste of Cole Porter
Pink Martini
is also performing at the Esplanade Theatre for one night, 31 March 2015: Tickets from Sistic.

Symphony Lake - Singapore Botanic Gardens
4. Free Jazz at Symphony Lake

The Thomson Jazz Band performs favourite tunes from the traditional jazz era at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on Sunday, 22 March 2015. Keep up with their events on their Facebook page.

Beautiful Sunday - The Esplanade
5. Free Classical Concerts at the Esplanade

Beautiful Sunday is a free concert of music at the Esplanade Concert Hall. The Carnival! 嘉年华!Concert by Kids Philharmonic in March features Saint-Saëns, Bizet, and the Symphonic Dances from Fiddler on the Roof.

River Safari
6. See capybaras at the River Safari
The Amazon River Quest Ride at the River Safari launched mid-year last year (July 2014). Singapore Zoo visitors get to see capybaras, Amazon monkeys, the Giant Anteater, the Brazillian tapir, and jaguars on this boat ride.

Visit the bird park!
7. See rare tropical birds up close 

Jurong Bird Park has a newly opened exhibit Wings of Asia with local birds which are hard to spot (without expert guiding) and endangered species in a walk-in aviary. Look out for the beautiful Victoria-crowned pigeon. Well worth a visit with your young ones.

Cat cafe
8. Cat Museum

There’s a new Cat Museum at 8 Purvis Street (open Friday 4.30-7pm; Sat-Sun 12noon-3.30pm; 4.30pm-7.30pm) where you can visit for some play time. Or you can have tea at the cat cafes in Boat Quay, Mosque Street, Victoria Street, or North Bridge Road.

9. Pet Expo 2015
Pet-education seminars and workshops, and pet competitions will be taking place at this mega Pet Expo over the 20 to 22 March 2015 weekend at Singapore Expo Hall 8. Catch Bobo, the skateboarding dog in action!

Visit a fire station!
10. Visit a Fire Station!

It’s Open House every Sunday morning at our local fire stations! More details here. Great for the little ones with a special interest in things with four wheels…

11. Standup Comedy
Russell Peters is in town for his Almost Famous World Tour on 7 to 8 April 2015. Nuff said.

Marina Bay Sands
12. Paris Opera Ballet

If your March evenings and weekends are already full, you can keep them open for the upcoming festivals in April and May: Paris Opera Ballet is in town on 17 to 19 April 2015 to perform Balanchine, La Sylphide, and Don Quixote at the Esplanade, while the St Peterburg’s Ballet performs Swan Lake at Marina Bay Sands in the month of May.

29 ways to destress

There are only 3 days left before we can enjoy a day of rest (and possibly too much murukku). It’s only 68 days before the long weekend during Christmas this year and the ensuing three working days before the New Year, when everyone is at their desk but no one wants to do any work. Another 42 days to filing corporate annual tax returns. And another 26 days before children are free to roam the shopping malls downtown and prowl the science centre, zoo, and bird park.

In order that we don’t burn ourselves out to survive another fast-paced year in the corporate jungle, we can innoculate ourselves against stress. Here’s some things to try:

Coffee and Cookie Beneath Large Cork Noteboard

29. Do you precrastinate?
We can feel stressed out by our “to do” list, which more often than not gets longer as the day yawns on. Sometimes we get so stressed that the last thing that’s added to our list, is also the first thing we tackle, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else. Choosing to reply to a new email (precrastination) gets it off our list but may be counterproductive. It could be more efficient to let emails accumulate and reply to all of them at the end of the day.

 Don't disturb

28. Go away!
A 2014 study argues that multiple interruptions reduce quality of work produced. It may be a good idea to put your phone on “do not disturb” (only important calls will get through) and stop your email client from running in the background.

breakfast

27. Indulge in a short break at the office
A 2014 study found that employees who took breaks while at work reported more satisfaction at work. But the study also showed that these were usually employees who had a physical job, or those who had jobs with a lot of face-to-face interactions, and needed to decompress with “alone time”. But breaks don’t have to be “workplace internet leisure browsing“; they can be time well-spent filling up at the water cooler or having breakfast!

Facebook

26. Facebook at the office
According to this 2014 study, taking a 5-minute break to browse non-work-related websites helps younger employees stay focused at work. Using company internet to surf Facebook for 5 minutes was a more effective break than a similar duration spent comparing online insurance policies, doing nothing, or not taking a break. But it’s not for those aged 30 and up…

Have a cuppa

25. Smartphone breaks (and tea breaks) can be helpful 
We’re better at paying attention to a task which requires constant vigilance (think air traffic controllers) when we’re allowed brief breaks. A 2014 study observed that employees, who spent time playing a game, checking Facebook, or posting on Twitter while at work, had higher levels of mental well-being at the end of the day. The microbreaks help by allowing us to destress in between tasks. Though those in organizations where smartphones are not allowed, will probably need to do it the old-fashioned way — talking to co-workers in person or taking a tea break in another part of the building.

Video Game Competition

24. When TV is bad for you…
Apparently it’s hard to relax by watching TV or playing computer or video games. A recent study suggests that when we use TV and gaming as a distraction to escape more pressing tasks, we fail to be destressed from watching TV or from playing a computer or video game. Instead, we feel guilty for procrastinating on the pressing tasks. That’s not to say TV is not an effective way to destress. It is, but only if we’re not using it as a means to escape from a problem. If you’re not escaping, then go ahead…watch TV (skip to #13 and #14).

Walking the dog

23. If you must procrastinate…
Then choose something that you have to do. If you’re at home, that could be the laundry, dishes, ironing, walking the dog, or dinner prep. If you’re at the office, that could be clearing out your inbox, tidying up your desk, backing up your data, or sorting out your filing. At least you’ll feel accomplished at the end of the day.

MP900341511

22. Get those creative juices flowing
A recent study has found that employees with creative pursuits outside work are more productive than their peers who don’t have such interests. Even being an audience member at a dance or musical performance or a visitor to an art gallery or museum exhibition can bestow benefits which include improved mental wellbeing and mood. It may be that creative hobbies help us relax during our downtime, which in turn boosts our effectiveness when we’re on the job in the work week.

Woman listening to music.

21. Enjoy your time at work and at home
Although not all tasks are suited to being accompanied by music, music can be helpful in boosting productivity. And putting up the bass can make one feel empowered. So, put on those headphones and turn up the bass before that all-important client meeting, business negociation, or employee performance review.

oregon coast

20. Channel your spending towards friends and family
Spending on things which provide us opportunities for social interactions (e.g., meals, theatre shows) makes us happy. Relative to spending on things which are only appreciated by us. Research also shows that we’re happier when we spend on others rather than ourselves. And we’re most happy about charity donations when these further a cause supported by friends or family. What all this tells us is that we value social experiences. By that reasoning, we should expect to be ecstatic about making a home-made picnic for friends and family at Marina Barrage. Or a potluck get-together with all your office BFFs.

working like a dog

19. The magic of delegation
Some of the things that we do don’t need to be done by us. But giving responsibilities away takes practice. It helps if we also prepare by finding out ahead of time whom we can give the tasks away to. Here are some tips and a how-to guide.

yes - notepad & pen

18. Give it away, give it away now
There’s a difference between something which is important but not urgent, and something which is urgent but not important. It’s tough deciding which to do first. Here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do.

List of things to do

17. Say no (or else…)
Much easier said that done. But since we don’t have superpowers, we need to know what we do want to do and don’t want to do. It’s not just about finding ways to do things more efficiently (though that helps). We can do things which fit into the time available. Here’s how to go about doing it and a useful fact sheet. If not, you can appoint someone to remind you to say no.

Don't fill your diary with unimportant things to do

16. Be assertive, not passive-aggressive
Part of “learning to say no” is learning to be assertive. Being assertive means saying what your needs and feelings are, with the right body language. This helps you manage your stress, particularly if we have difficulty turning down more work responsibilities. And prevent you from “vaguebooking” and “posting statuses for attention” for the next two hours, when you should be working!

Low angle view of a young woman playing basketball

15. Look into ways to improve yourself
Key competencies for employees in today’s workplace include awareness of one’s emotions, ability to manage one’s emotions, ability to motivate oneself, empathy, and the ability to manage relationships with others. You can’t change others; you can only change yourself. It’s an important part of stress management. Find out about yourself here.

Find the silver lining

14. Laugh it off
Laughter alleviates stress and protects against heart disease (read this article). It’s not just common sense. Laughter is the best medicine: Patients were found to cope better when their long-term chronic illnesses were explained with cartoons. Seeing the funny side of things helps us cope when life gets stressful (here’s the science behind it). Now you have an excuse to read Sherman’s lagoon. Or view some self-deprecating thoughts.

BFFs

13. Have a good cry (and a friend to hold your hand)

Some argue that crying has a stress-reducing effect, but it appears that the benefits of a good cry may depend on who’s doing the crying and who they’re with at the time of their crying. Findings from a 2008 study suggests that having emotional support in the form of friends and family produces positive outcomes from the crying episode. So, station your social support network on your sofa, get ready the tissues, and turn on the K-drama channel…

Laughter is the best medicine

12. Watch a funny movie
A recent study found that watching films with a stressful scene (heart surgery in the film Vertical Limit) makes our heart beat faster. And not in a good way. In contrast, watching a funny movie reduces anxiety levels. A 1991 study showed that we’re better at solving a problem when we’re experiencing a positive emotion than a negative one. It appears that we are more apt to think of possible solutions when we’re feeling happy.

Anticipating is just as good

11. Ready, steady, laugh!
In fact, just knowing that we’re about to laugh relieves stress. Anticipating a funny movie lowered stress hormones (cortisol) and two other mood-regulating hormones (adrenalin and a dopamine-related brain chemical). Amazing. Time to self-medicate with Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me 2!

Education

10. Spend time on your financial health
When we have money problems at home, we spend time at work solving these problems or worrying about them. All this worrying can lead us to destressing in less than healthy ways. So it pays to keep tabs on your spending, saving, and investing (here are some tips for getting started).

Boy Photographing Man

9. Spend time with your kids
Toddler tantrums and preschool meltdowns are unlikely to be your idea of a restful weekend. Odd as it may sound, children can behave in much more predictable ways when they spend more time with their parents. And if parents engage in warm and consistent parenting, focusing on rewarding desirable behaviour and understanding their young children’s needs and feelings.

Frustrated Mother and Daughter

8. Spend time with your older kids too
Respectful communication is easier when you spend time doing day-to-day things with your teenagers. You may want to try a problem-solving approach when addressing a testy topic. Or assess the various sources of stress that your children are facing before tackling disagreeable topics.

DJ with Gear

7. Defend your ears
A study which found that elevated traffic noise produced higher blood pressure and heart rate, and higher levels of stress hormone, also showed that even low-level noise elicited a stress response, resulting in reduced motivation. Aside from sleep disturbances which in turn affect our ability to cope with stress, traffic noise is also thought to contribute to stress-related health problems such as stroke and heart disease. There are solutions being proposed in dense cities, but ear plugs are a good short-term solution in the meantime.

MP900227749

6. Greener is better
The participants of a large scale study reported better mental wellbeing as soon as they moved to a greener neighbourhood and this improvement was sustained for as long as 3 years after the move. In another study, residents in a neighbourhood with more trees and vegetation had fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Remarkable.

mid section view of a woman cutting vegetables

5. Popeye was right
Investing in a plant-based diet, as well as physical activity as part of one’s daily routine, a strong social support network, and a purpose-driven life, is one of the secrets to getting older with good mental and physical health.

Tall Green Tree

4. Increase your sunshine vitamin
Nurses were more alert and experienced improved mood when they spent more time with daylight than artificial light (read about the study here). Blue light, which is more available from the morning sun than evening sun, regulates our sleep patterns, which in turn affects our ability to pay attention and solve problems during our working hours. Besides that, sunlight also provides us with vitamin D, which boosts your immune system and facilitates calcium absorption. Time to get make hay while the sun shines!

Woman Stretching in Bed with a Man Sleeping Beside Her

3. Get some zzz!
Whether it’s from disrupted sleep or a lack of sleep, poor quality sleep compromises our ability to remember things and impacts our mood. Studies also show that sleep deprivation puts adolescents at risk of depression and children at risk of obesity. The less we sleep, the faster we age. And here’s the really bad news: lack of sleep makes us crave junk food! Sleep is definitely a must-have.

Head to Head

2. Mindfulness
Studies show that spending a small amount of time a day focusing on breathing helps to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, alleviating stress and reduces burnout. Other benefits include improvements in other domains such as attentiondecision-makingimmune health, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness is not for everyone so similar techniques including yoga and tai chi are other alternatives. Yoga has been shown to improve brain function and psychological mood, lessen anxiety, lower inflammation, and alleviate stress. Relaxation is the cornerstone in managing stress.

Group of People Playing Volleyball on the Beach

1. Keep exercising!
Being physically active means having better physical wellbeing, brain function, and memory capacity. Exercise is not only effective in treating depression but prevents the onset of depression and reduces anxiety levels. Long-term physical activity has anti-aging properties, while exercise has been shown to suppress chronic inflammation. No pain, no gain.

Ageing successfully

Couple on Beach

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), life expectancy and medical advances has lengthened lifespans in most countries, and the number of people aged 60 years and older has doubled since 1980. Living longer is easy, with the advances we’re making in the domain of science and medicine. But we’re probably more interested in answering the question of how we can age successfully. That and avoiding dementia.

On this International Day of Older Persons, let’s review what’s been known for a while:

1. Eat your veggies!

There’s no getting away from it. Studies show that those who live a long independent life in Okinawa eat lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and whole-grains. Their habit of eating until they feel 80% full is also likely a major contributor to the reason for their disability-free longevity.

2. Stay active!

Research indicates that cardiovascular disease risk is a major contributor to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (Fratiglioni et al., 2004). Lowering this risk through regular, weekly moderate-to-vigorous exercise is one strategy. And also a reason why Sardinians, who herd sheep over steep hills, are reputed to age successfully (see this TED video about the blue zones).

3. Engage your social brain!

A review of the literature shows that adults who are socially active are also likely to have better psychological wellbeing in their later years; being engaged in social activities and having stronger social networks is a protective factor against dementia (Fratiglioni et al., 2004). Various studies show that religious attendance, community involvement, and being employed are associated with better mental wellbeing among older adults. These activities are also shown to be helpful for local residents too…

So to sum, it’s the same thing that us active younger (a little bit younger) adults need to start doing. But we just need to keep doing them!

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.

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?

Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane

Today online (18 June 2014) reports that “almost half of Singaporeans are dissatisfied with their jobs”. And The Straits Times (7 May 2014) said not long ago that one in five feels very stressed, which is consistent with the 2013 Gallup survey which reported that only 10% of employees polled felt passionate and motivated about their work. There’s a very slim possibility that they’re related. Just a thought

That means lots of people could be experiencing burnout at work (check if you’re experiencing the symptoms of burnout here).

Between having too much on your plate at work and having too much to do at home, it can be hard work trying to find the time to de-stress.

So we put together a wish list to help you join the “thriving at work” crowd:

1. Get really active!
It’s easy to think, “what’s the point in finding time to exercise? I’m already so emotionally drained. Exercising is just going to make me feel more exhausted”.

But exercise actually helps your muscle relax. More importantly, exercise helps to regulate levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in your brain, helping you experience more positive emotions (Craft & Perner, 2004).

Not surprisingly, exercise lowers stress levels, improves life satisfaction, psychological mood, and mental wellbeing (Atlantis, Chow, Kirby, & Singh, 2004Coulson & McKenna, 2008Daley & Parfitt, 2011Parks & Steelman, 2008), and effectively reduces anxiety, depression, and absenteeism (Bhui, Dinos, Stansfeld, & White, 2008).

Time to join that in-house workplace fitness programme! But if that’s not your cup of tea, there are many other exercise options. And for those with strong views about the unnecessary evils of exercise, consider some fun alternatives!

2. Sleep is crucial
Sleep is probably the top thing on your list of things to do. But strangely enough, getting good quality sleep isn’t always quite the walk in the park you thought it’d be.

But getting good quality REM and deep sleep means a more efficient brain the next day, with positive outcomes for learning and memory (here’s the science stuff).

Sleep (particularly when used in combination with #1) helps us maintain our psychological mood and mental wellbeing. Not convinced? Try these for bedtime reading: NIHAPAHBR.

And if you drank too much coffee, try fitting in a nap. Even better, cultivate some good sleep habits.

3. Learn to switch off
Get into the habit of not checking your mobile devices on the weekend. Plan your holidays in places with limited wifi or dodgy mobile phone reception! The reasons are pretty straight forward (read this article: Straits Times, 9 Dec 2013).

4. Rethink your communication style
Assertive communication is key to managing your stress.
“Being assertive shows that you respect yourself because you’re willing to stand up for your interests and express your thoughts and feelings. It also demonstrates that you’re aware of the rights of others and are willing to work on resolving conflicts.” – Mayo Clinic. Here are some tips on how to communicate effectively.

5. Seek out a workplace mentor
It’s also possible that you’d fare better at work if your line manager gave you recognition for work well done. And if you had a mentor to help you improve your job performance and provide career guidance.

6. Support a collaborative work environment
You’d be also much more motivated about work if you had rapport and a relationship built on trust with your line manager. Having friends at the workplace and your team is a key driver (MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training). But it works both ways. Successful managers need to also care about their employees: They need to practice active listening, focus on their employees’ strengths, and provide constructive feedback to their subordinates.

7. Get some professional help
Getting insight into solutions to a personal or workplace problem with a professional counsellor through the employee assistance programme at your workplace could help you move forward. You don’t need to have a crisis to seek help. Counselling can be a useful resource for identifying your source of stress and prioritizing potential solutions for addressing the problem (here are some tips).

Managers could benefit from executive coaching to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues. Studies indicate that a cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach improves mental resilience, psychological wellbeing, and stress levels.

8. Don’t forget to fit in some time for relaxation!
Relaxation techniques are effective for managing stress because they help bring your central nervous system back to equilibrium.

“When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of the stress response.”http://www.helpguide.org

Mindfulness is all the buzz right now. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to relaxation. Business Insider has some unique ideas, though you may prefer a more conventional approach such as gardeningYoga and tai chi may suit those wanting to raise their heart rate at the same time, while having someone hit all your acupressure points certainly appeals to many.