New ways to de-stress

Apparently, we’re a very stressed workforce.

According to a 2015 workplace survey of 7, 883 employees who used their company’s employee assistance programme (read more here to find out about EAPs), there was a high level of anxiety among younger employees. Compared to X-gen and baby boomer employees, high anxiety was reported by 5% more employees in the millennial age group.

But it’s probably not just the Y-gen who need help managing their stress and anxiety. Even foreign domestic helpers have mental health concerns. According to a study by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economies, 2 in 10 domestic helpers showed signs of psychological distress.

The fact is, we all could do with a bit of help. A 2014 study showed poor coping strategies were more likely to lead to the development of insomnia.

So what does help?

1. Zap your fatigue with a nap
It’s not new that getting a nap helps your brain perform better at tasks of memory. But if you were in doubt, here’s a new finding that supports that idea.

What’s new is the finding that taking a nap is “an effective strategy to counteract impulsive behavior and to boost tolerance for frustration”, so says this new 2015 study. So, go ahead and get those 40 winks. Look here for the best way to nap.

2. Exercise and meditate your stress away
Previous studies show that exercise improves your mental health and psychological mood. But new research shows that sports and physical activity can be as effective as depression meds. Put another way, exercise has been shown to be an effective way to lower stress hormone levels, in turn alleviating depression.

Like exercise, doing relaxation exercises while at work can help us cope with high levels of job stress. A 2015 study showed that mindfulness techniques to be as effective in alleviating depression as depression medications, while another 2015 study found that workplace mindfulness exercises helped reduce stress responses among nurses.

So, getting physical and mindful are some of the best ways to manage stress.

3. Boost your mental health with a balanced diet
The experts advocate the consumption of “key nutrients, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids Omega-3, essential amino acids, B-group vitamins (B12 and folate), vitamin D and minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron” for our mental health..

4. It’s all in your attitude!
Research suggests that staying psychologically healthy can be as simple as just having a positive outlook. A 2015 study found that people had better mental health when they were able to stay calm and/or cheerful while coping with a stressful situation.

And when you have tried all that, you can try a few more whimsical options:

5. That’s how the smart cats do it
A new study found that watching cat videos helped boost viewers’ positive emotions, while reducing their negative ones. Here’s a Maru video to get you started.

6. Time to get your colour pencils out
Colouring is the new black. Not only are there colouring books for adults, there are colouring workshops too. Research findings about the mental health benefits of colouring for adults are as easy to find as an oak tree at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. But research has found creative pursuits to be helpful for relieving stress. So go on, get those crayons and watercolour brushes out.

7. After work, doing nothing is better than checking facebook
A recent study found local commuters reported more positive emotions “zoning out” than being connected online on their evening commute home. In contrast, they reported more positive emotions while engaged in online social networking and text messaging on their morning commute into work.

So, you have it now. The official endorsement to engage in a little bit of people-watching. Without any pangs of guilt. It’s for your own mental health of course. And it works best when on your way home from work.

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?

Ways to motivate your employees

Ways to motivate your employees

Ways to motivate your employe

A 6 Dec 2013 news article in the Straits Times (“S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“) reports “three in four workers” in Singapore to be disengaged at work. Based on results from a recent Gallup poll, the findings highlight the need to provide workers with recognition for work well done and career advice, among other things (see these five tips from Gallup). And there’s also much to be said for having fair bosses (“Who Goes to Work For Fun?“, New York Times, 11 Dec 2013) and a work culture which encourages employee autonomy (“Fashion own model of work efficiency“, Straits Times, 21 Oct 2013).

We offer a few more ideas for motivating employees at the workplace (some being a bit more unusual than most):

1. Get a coffee machine

You’ve heard the news. Caffeine is good for memory (“Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”, BBC News, 12 Jan 2014). The ability to remember and recall things was superior for after having caffeine. (We might think we would perform better at a memory task if we, habitual coffee drinkers, drink coffee. For example. But that’s not the case because participants in this recent study were given a caffeine pill. So it’s purely the effect of caffeine not our perceptions about the benefits of caffeine which boosted memory abilities.)

2. Decorate the office with a sofa

We know from bitter experience that drinking too much coffee after noon can keep us from falling asleep at night. And there’s research to support this idea (“Late afternoon, early evening caffeine can disrupt sleep at night”, Science Daily, 14 Nov 2013): The study shows that drinking coffee even as early as 6 hours before bedtime lessens sleep duration by an unperceptible extra hour of sleep. A powerful 10 minute snooze could potentially help the genuinely soporific employee continue his or her productive day: But first, one must of course know how to nap.

3. Incorporate green spaces at work

A new study reports better mental wellbeing among those who relocated their homes in a greener urban area (“Green spaces deliver lasting mental health benefits”, Science Daily, 7 Jan 2014). Those rooftop gardens and squares of lush greenery won’t just benefit residents in high-rise flats. They could have benefits for office workers too.

4. Encourage employees to switch off

According to a recent study by Expedia, employees in America, Korea and Japan don’t take full advantage of their personal leave, while an overwhelming majority among employees in Malaysia, Thailand, and India who do take their personal leave, spend a substantial amount of their vacation time checking and responding to work emails. Because making time to destress has positive benefits for our mental wellbeing, it’s helpful to have a work culture where employees can go on vacation without checking their work inbox. Better still, encourage them to aim for a destination (see The Guardian for suggestions) with limited wifi or mobile phone reception!. And not surprisingly, this is already corporate policy at some workplaces: “Companies act to avoid costly burnout” (Straits Times, 9 Dec 2013).

5. Keep meetings to the point

Have employees do less. Gasp. Not more. That’s the current school of thought. It says we should resist adding more things to the To Do list of skilled workers (read this Economist article, “In praise of laziness“, 17 Aug 2013). We could be so much more productive if meetings were facilitated by a moderator mindful of time and the agenda. And if emails were restricted to convey information rather than a day-long ping-pong match which could be boiled down to a 15 minute conversation over coffee or tea. And we could be leading rather productive lives without email ping-pong. It’s old-fashioned, but talking does have its place.

6. Work hard, play hard

While technology allows us to work anywhere, it may have damaging consequences. A recent UK study reported in Daily Science found that work overload was closely related to compulsive use of the internet (and signs that they were experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as isolation), while another recent report (“Smartphones may harm productivity at work, study finds“, Today, 27 Jan 2014) indicates that checking mail after office hours disrupts our ability to attain adequate rest, which in turn affects our performance at work the next working day.

If we had a reason to leave work on time (because we need to get to that social dance event, french grammar class, blues-jazz jam session, wine tasting date), we would probably be more efficient during our work day. If our co-workers were hanging out together for dinner and after-dinner drinks (or dessert), we would have shorter lunches. If our manager or team leader were to be also going to the same gym class or badminton game, we might check facebook less, spend less time planning holidays and shopping online during work hours, and be more punctual at clocking out.

7. Green Fridays

It’s easy for employees to exercise on the way to work in non-tropical climates. Even though we have climate-controlled buildings and the weather’s been impressively cooperative (in the low 20°s Celcius) in the more recent weeks, it’s still not really conducive for a brisk walk to the office. Unless there are shower facilities there. Casual Fridays is far from rampant, and Sweatpants Fridays seems unlikely to take off here (“Working wear on Friday? No sweat, boss!“, Washington Post, 3 Jan 2014). But for those still open to the idea of being healthy at least once a week, Fridays could be the day to have everyone go for a walk after office hours and the day for eating one’s own pack lunch of fruits and vegetables.

recent study shows that corporate wellness programmes help those with a chronic illness, and a lower rate of absenteeism. But having a workplace wellness programme (particularly one that incorporates an employee assistance programme to address employee mental and emotional wellbeing) is only the first step. Cultivating a corporate culture which helps employee engagement benefits the employer and stakeholders in the longer term. 

Unsuitable behaviour

It’s the story of “the suitor who won’t take no for an answer” (Straits Times, 11 March 2014).

Boy meets girl. They go on a couple of dates. On date #3, they discuss marriage and children. Jealous, possessive, and manipulative behaviours surface. She stops answering his calls. But he continues the incessant phone and text campaign. She closes her facebook account and opens a new one—twenty times. He calls her at the office, turns up at her workplace, verbally abuses her family on the phone and online, sends her flowers at her home to let her know that he knows where she lives. She makes numerous formal complaints. But the damage is done.

At what point should we do something about it? Let’s rewind.

Boy meets girl. They go on a couple of dates. On date #3, they discuss marriage and children. Sharing one’s views about marriage and children. Yes, one expects to have that discussion at some point. But talking about getting married at date #3? Jealous, possessive, and manipulative behaviours surface. Alarm bells start to ring. One would think about not having any more to do with this person. That’s exactly what happens. She stops answering his calls. But he continues the incessant phone and text campaign. She closes her facebook account and opens a new one. Wait. Doesn’t this sound a lot like bullying?

The official definition of bullying is “a situation where a powerful bully intentionally harms a vulnerable and isolated victim through repeated hurtful behaviours that can result in damaging consequences” (Singapore Children’s Society). Said another way, it’s when someone does something with the intention of hurting someone else, more than once. In fact, online bullying is up for discussion today—”Let’s start an open conversation about bullying” (Today Online, 11 March 2014). So it’s not a story about a “suitor”, but about a “bully”.

Legal protection is one thing. But the real issue is the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the person who has been bullied and/or been the subject of harrassment.

There is much consensus that bullying has negative consequences in terms of poor physical and mental health: Bullied children are at risk for depression and have poor self-worth (CNN, 17 Feb 2014), while harrassment puts adults at risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (www.livescience.com).

So what can we do about it?

Writing a letter to the bully to communicate that the behaviour is unwelcome, is an important first step. Writing down all encounters factually (supported by audio-video documentation and copies of any written correspondence) with dates, times, witnesses, and location details, in chronological order, is equally important.

In the meantime, we can reduce the negative effects of bullying and harrassment by taking some extra steps:

1. Change your mobile phone number and give it out to your close friends and family. They have your interests at heart. So they will understand that you need to do this.

2. Carry a second mobile for work and activate caller ID. You could redirect your direct dial office phone to your new mobile number and use voicemail to screen your calls.

3. Request that your telco block your telephone numbers from being displayed on the called party’s phone (e.g., the Caller Number Non-Display option).

4. Ask everyone to email you rather than call you (you can call them back).

5. Set up a new alias email address at work with your initials instead of your full name.

6. Set up a new personal email account. Give it out sparingly, as least initially.

7. Open a new facebook account, choosing the privacy settings which allow only friends of friends to search for you and only friends to message you and access your newsfeed, pictures, and posts. Choosing a profile picture and profile name which conceals your identity, declaring fewer pieces of information about yourself (e.g., contact details, your social networks, the city you live in, the schools you’ve attended), and adding friends judiciously are all key to playing a successful cat and mouse game. 

8. Allow only trusted friends and family to access your contact details and online status on messenger platforms such as  whatsapp.

9. Change your routines by choosing a different route to work or by leaving home or the office at different times.

10. Ask your extended family to call before coming to visit. Make arrangements so that you’re not the first to arrive when you meet your friends on social occasions.

“Let’s find out more about mental illness”

Mental health resources

Yes, let’s. The article “Let’s find out more about mental illness” published in Straits Times, 16 Nov 2013, talks about childhood mental health disorders, and specifically, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

It’s timely, given that understanding about mood and anxiety disorders involving adults tends to be poor, let alone mental health disorders involving children and adolescents. And it’s a good time as any to talk about mental health disorders, especially in the light of recent news reports involving individuals with depression.

But what is it that we understand about mental health disorders? From the resources made available to various organizations dealing with mental health issues, quite a lot actually.

But first, maybe we should know at least a few things worth knowing:

1. Stigma is everywhere, not just in Singapore.

That there is local stigma about seeking help for mental health disorders is not surprising.

But these are ubiquitous issues, relevant to other communities such as those in UK (“Understanding anxiety and mental health stigma”, The Guardian, 27 Sep 2013), Australia (“Mental health stigma still affecting Australian workers, with research showing 4 in 10 hide depression from their employers”, ABC, 12 Nov 2013), Canada (“Montrealers demonstrate to end mental health stigma”, CBC, 20 Oct 2013), Hong Kong (“First mental health web radio in Hong Kong raises the community’s awareness on mental illness and mental health”, UHK, 15 Nov 2013), and Taiwan (“Society must confront mental health stigma, redefine success”, The China Post, 3 June 2013).

We may not have progressed very far (“S’poreans fear mental patients, study finds”, Straits Times, 29 Oct 2007), but at least we’re increasingly cognizant of the issues and are adding to facts not fiction.

This Huffington Post article provides 3 helpful suggestions for how you and I can make a difference. The UK campaign which started in 2009 to end mental health discrimination at their www.time-to-change.org.uk offers useful tips on how to talk about mental health issues.

2. There are resources out there for the public.

3. There’s information about mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

4. Other resources include information about developmental disorders.

5. We can always do more.

A 2012 report in the Singapore Annals Academy of Medicine did not investigate whether their stratified sample of 6616 respondents, among whom 12% met the criteria for mood, anxiety, or alcohol use disorders but less than a third had sought professional help, used the internet to find out more about mental health disorders. Given that the same report acknowledges 80% or more of the local population aged 49 years and below (and 40% of those aged 50 to 59 years) has internet access, there’s much scope for accurate information about mental health to be provided on an online platform. This BBC Wales health report presents possibilities, while the UK Child and Maternal Health Intelligence Network offers ideas via a Tackling Stigma Toolkit. There are always more things that can be done. Something we can work towards perhaps?