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.”

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.

Why exercise works

We know the health benefits of physical activity. Better BMI, lower levels of LDL and higher levels of HDL, improved blood pressure and heart rate, more efficient cardio functioning, lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. In addition, there are psychological benefits from exercising. It’s not only responsible for positive outcomes such as lower levels of stress and better life satisfaction in the general population, it’s also been shown to be effective in helping to improve psychological mood and mental wellbeing among those with depression (Ströhle, [2009] offers a comprehensive literature review on the subject).

And we know the health benefits of eating healthy. Health magazines and newspaper articles extol the virtues of making healthier eating choices, while there’s plenty of research evidence that increasing one’s daily intake of multigrains and/or greens plays a protective role against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity.

But knowing and doing are two different things. Perhaps it might be helpful to understand why exercise and healthy eating achieves these things. For one thing, it appears that exercise helps the body process fat more efficiently. A recent news article, “Altered states” (Economist, July 2013) highlights the finding that fats cells of people who exercise behave differently from those of people who exercise rarely (Ronn et al., 2013). For another, increased intake of greens appears to increase gut bacteria associated with healthy metabolism and decrease gut bacteria associated with obesity. The recent news article, “Wider understanding” (Economist, September 2014) explains that a high glycaemic diet impairs insulin functioning, unlike a low glycaemic diet (driven by the intake of multigrains) which in turn is protective against obesity.

But knowing the health benefits of exercise and healthy eating is half the equation: you still have to get out there and do it!

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?

Engaged employees are productive ones

Working towards a healthy workplace

Healthy employees, happy employer

“…Recent studies have shown that having happy, healthy, and engaged employees is good for a company’s bottom line. A recent Gallup study reports that the annual per-person cost of lost productivity due to sick days among the least happy and least engaged workers is upward of USD28,000. In contrast, the sick-day lost-productivity cost among the happiest and most engaged workers: USD $840 a year (Rath & Harter, 2010)….” Read more >>

From an article in Headhunt: Issue 133| July 25, 2013

Green is good

The reasons why a recycle-resuse-reduce policy at the workplace is good for the environment are plain to see. But there are other reasons why green is good!

  • Take time to smell the flowers
    Apart from the physical health benefits of physical activity and interacting socially with your friends on a walk in a park, there are psychological benefits from taking time to experience nature.
  • Eat a bowl of tea
    Drinking green tea has been found to be associated with lower risks of breast cancer recurrence (though the jury is still out on whether the benefits of green tea consumption extends to lowering the risk of breast cancer incidence), according to a recent meta-analysis (Ogunleye et al., 2010).
  • Eat enough fruit and veg
    Fruit and vegetable consumption has been reliably associated with lower risks of cancer, with fruits being particularly protective for head-neck and esophagus cancers, and both playing a protective role for cancers involving the pancreatic, stomach, colorectal, bladder, cervix, ovarian, endometrium, and breast (Block et al., 1991), although a more recent meta-analysis indicates that moderate rather than high consumption of fruit and vegetables is adequate for lowering cancer risk (Key, 2011).
    In contrast, each additional portion of fruit and vegetables consumed a day is associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease by at least 4% (Dauchet et al., 2006; WHO, 2004), while eating 3 or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily is linked to a lower risk of stroke (He et al., 2006). At the same time, it is thought that eating fruits and vegetables which contain vitamin C, potassium, folate, and the all-important dietary fibre, have positive health benefits which dietary flavonoid supplements do not provide (Egert and Rimbach, 2011).

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.

Increasing physical activity at the workplace

Physical activity not only helps improve cardiovascular health but has important implications for psychosocial health. A meta-analysis of intervention studies including 8 randomized controlled trials reveals that physical activity is reliably associated with better quality of life and emotional wellbeing (Brown, Gilson, Burton, & Brown, 2011).

Promoting messages about the benefits of physical activity at the workplace is one way to increase physical activity among employees. Implementing organizational-level policy change such as free membership to fitness clubs and in-house exercise programmes during protected time is another. But not all workplace interventions are created equal. Some interventions can be more effective than others, while retaining a relatively cost-efficient status.

Here are 8 things to know about effective interventions.

  1. Measure objective health measures
    Educating employees about the benefits of increasing their levels of physical activity may be effective, but these benefits may not be observed in self-report measures of activity level. Using a randomized controlled matched-worksite design, McEachan et al. (2011) compared employees educated on the benefits of physical activity with controls without access to an equivalent intervention. In this study of 1025 respondents, employees who received the intervention were not reporting more physical activity after 9 months than controls, but they had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and a lower resting heart rate. Objective health measures are useful indicators of programme effectiveness.

  2. Emphasize the socioemotional benefits of physical activity
    Promoting the mental health, social, and physical health benefits of physical activity may be more effective than emphasizing only physical health benefits alone. Moreover, promoting each type of benefit at one time may be more effective than educating employees about all three types of benefits altogether. Because it is easier to absorb new information in smaller chunks, promoting mental health benefits separately from physical health benefits may prove to be an effective strategy for increasing physical activity among employees. The workplace intervention in McEachan and colleagues’s (2011) study promoted each category of benefits to employees in different months.

  3. Use a variey of communication channels
    Using a combination of different channels to communicate the benefits of physical activity may also be more effective than relying primarily on email. The workplace programme which reduced systolic blood pressure and resting heart rate in the McEachan et al. (2011) study distributed the benefits of physical activity over several months in the form of posters, leaflets, a management support letter, a knowledge quiz, an email reminder, a newsletter, as well as a physical activity team challenge.

  4. Tailor your programme to the target audience
    Giving employees a pedometer, in addition to information about the benefits of walking and stair-use, increases walking behaviour compared to controls Aittasalo et al. (2012). At the same time, adults with more years of education are more likely to increase their step count with a pedometer. Pedometer awareness has also been associated with greater pedometer use (Craig et al., 2006; Eakin et al., 2007). An intervention involving pedometers can therefore be an cost-efficient strategy for employees with high levels of education. On the other hand, the benefits of giving employees a pedometer may be optimized by impressing upon employees, who have varying levels of education, the benefits of walking and launching a campaign to raise their awareness about pedometers.

  5. Identify factors associated with increased physical activity  
    Common sense dictates that a programme targeted to increase physical activity alone will be not be effective in raising the health status of employees unless it is combined with a campaign which encourages healthy eating. However, it is also important to focus on aspects of healthy eating found to significantly contribute to healthy behaviour. A study of 573 employees in sedentary occupations showed that encouraging employees to log 10,000 steps daily was more effective in reducing waist circumference among those who ate at least two servings of fruit a day (Freak-Poli et al., 2011).

  6. Use facilities accessible to all employees
    Encouraging employees to use the stairs in place of lifts (elevators) increases physical activity at the workplace. In a study of 160 office workers, employees who used the stairs for 10 minutes three times a week over 10 weeks had improved aerobic fitness compared to controls (Andersen et al., 2013). Benefits extended to improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure for the stair-use group over controls, among those with poor fitness at baseline.

  7. Find the right place to motivate employees
    It’s easy to say “take the stairs”. It’s much harder to get everyone to actually take the stairs. Although the physical health benefits of using the stairs over the lift are well established, few studies focus on the effectiveness of campaigns which encourage stair-use. In a study involving two worksites with 500 and 1200 employees and 4 and 5 floors respectively, Eves and colleagues (2013) found that combining a stairwell message such as “stair climbing always burns calories” with an arrow pointing to the stair riser, with posters carrying information about the benefits of stair climbing (and calories consumed by stair use) to be more effective than posters alone, at increasing stair use. Not only were the stairs used more frequently (as clocked by infrared technology) but employees exposed to posters and stairwell messages were more informed about calorie information associated with stair use.

Balancing work and life on a tightrope

Work-life harmony is currently a national priority.

The Singapore Tripartite Forum deems employees able to combine work responsibilities and personal-family needs likely to be more engaged and productive at work. Businesses are being encouraged to provide for work-life balance among employees.

And the policy emphasis on work-life harmony is supported by the MoM Work-Life Grant. This grant, previously known as Work-Life Works! or WoW! (no, not World of Warcraft), supports EAP counselling and hotline services as part of Employee Support Schemes. The 2005 Work Life Harmony Report  provides findings and recommendations for employers on using work-life strategies to optimise business performance, while Tripartite Guidelines on Best Work-Life Practices lists mental wellness talks/workshops and confidential professional counselling among employee support schemes for enhancing work productivity. But what’s like on the ground?

According to a research report by Azzone and colleagues in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 90% of Fortune 500 companies implemented EAP services for their employees in 2002, while 40% of US employees in the private sector had access to EAP services in subsequent years (Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, & McCann, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

In Singapore, comprehensive EAPs are a relatively new development, even though corporate wellness programmes have been in place since the 1980s. As many as 26% of private companies in Singapore with at least 50 employees had a comprehensive workplace health promotion programme in 1998 (Chew, Cheah, & Koh, 2002). The findings published in the Singapore Medical Journal were based on a survey which had a 49.5% response rate from 4,479 companies. A 2006 National Workplace Health Promotion Survey, cited in a recent book edited by Kirsten and Karch (2012), Global Perspectives in Workplace Health Promotion, puts this number at 58.7%.

With the recent mushrooming of local EAP providers, hopefully it won’t be too long before the untangling of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and employee assistance payments can begin.

Workout at the office

You’ve already tried to reach your weekly 150 minute moderate exercise quota from ironing your children’s uniforms and rushing to get your washing in before the rains get to it. You’ve tested your family’s patience for long-tailed macaques at nature reserves and squirrels at Sungei Buloh, exhausted all the shopping malls, and walked around the Botanical Gardens, flower domes at Gardens by the Bay, the Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari, and Jurong Birk Park several times over.

Punggol’s waterways are nice but far away. You need things which don’t require traveling or the uncumbersome task of packing food and water for the family.

So here are some things which you can do at the office:

But perhaps you can work a bit harder…

  • Try a new lunch place that’s 20 min away
  • Use a restroom on a different floor
  • Walk to the coffee machine while your desktop boots up
  • Do a hamstrings-quads-triceps stretch in the lift
  • Attempt some pushups while the photocopier warms up
  • Fill up at the water cooler at least three times a day
  • Chat to keep postprandial nap desires at bay
  • Water your plants sparingly (yes, another restroom visit)
  • Rearrange your arch-lever files in different themes
  • Place your dustbin far away—walk over to place each paper you toss, but miss, in the bin

If that’s too tame, you can venture beyond the usual…

  • Try an egg-spoon race at the office with chocolate eggs for a less sticky end to an enticing affair
  • Practice your Chinese opera under a tree at lunchtime
  • Play life-size 3D chess near the office at lunchtime
  • Limbo under an imaginary pole into the restroom
  • Dance in the corridor doing this jazz step or that one
  • Install a standing broad jump station along the corridor
  • Keep goldfish at your desk, changing their water each week
  • Impress the cleaning crew with your uncluttered desk
  • Scrub the mould off your coffee cups
  • Set up a “how many sit-ups in 5 min” competition

Just keep in mind a simple guideline: The more trips to the restroom, pantry, 7-11, cafeteria, playground, exercise garden, etc, the better. When you get tired, just whizz yourself down the corridor in your wheelie chair, swivelling from side to side with your legs off the floor. It’s good for your abs. And excellent entertainment for your bemused colleagues.

Whole grains, fruits, and veggies

Clearly, whole grains are plentiful in the city—this list is evidence enough—but perhaps your recreational pastime is tweeting pictures of your delicious lunch while keeping up with the hip and cool. In which case, you might want to consider the whole grain options at these places. The all-inspiring fruits and veggies at these cafes should also receive no less attention from you.

In the city:

  1. The Plain Cafe | 50 Craig Road
    There’s nothing like a massive bowl of fresh fruit with a dollop of yoghurt and muesli with a neat espresso to get your day started.
  2. Sarnies | 136 Telok Ayer Road
    If you can manage an awesomely early lunch, you can get the salmon-scrambled-egg on rye bread (on the breakfast menu till 11am) and skip the lunch queue which moseys along quickly enough.
  3. Simply Sandwich | 120 Robinson Road
    You can’t go wrong with a nicely toasted sandwich of roast beef and hot mustard on rye.
  4. Nick Vina Artisan Bakery | 15 Gopeng St
    After a hide and seek game with Icon village, paprika salami on wholewheat walnut bread will be a welcome treat. Black forest ham engulfed by balsamic mustard and nine grain cereal bread could also be an invigorating snack for the arduous trek back to the office.
  5. SPR MRKT | 2 McCallum St
    The carrot-fennel soup and an almost salad nicoise—hard-boiled egg, french beans, black olives, salad greens—in the form of a tuna penne salad here will keep your micronutrient needs topped up.
  6. Sophie Bakery | 167/169 Telok Ayer St
    Rustic breads with rye offer a wholesome change from refined loafs.
  7. Baker and Cook | 38A Martin Road
    While waiting to get your fill of the red and green veggies in the chorizo-filled spanish omelette at the flagship store in Hillcrest, a quick peek at the breads might end with you going home ladened with a multigrain bread, or a fig-aniseed sourdough for the more adventurous.
  8. Selfish Gene Cafe | 40 Craig Road
    The weekend breakfast B.O.B. helps you attain your whole grain quota with multigrain bread, along with the requisite poached eggs, smoked salmon, and lacy greens.

A bit further afield:

  1. The Bread Project | 174 Joo Chiat Road
    The homesick will want a German rye filled with fragrant caraway, but it’s not for everyone. More prosaic choices include the pain au cereal which has rye, oats, millet, brown flaxseed, and sunflower seeds.
  2. Simply Bread | 1 Fifth Ave
    At Guthrie House, the Ploughman’s awaits those who appreciate mature cheddar with pickle on sourdough whole grains.
  3. Kooka Cafe | 18 Purvis St
    This well balanced caesar salad with a generous portion of romaine lettuce and bacon with fresh croutons and light dressing will keep you going for the whole day. It’s well worth the trek there.
  4. Choupinette | 607 Bukit Timah Road
    Pain à l’ancienne which has rye comes highly recommended.