Not happy at work? Try some different solutions


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 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.


Waving the magic wand at work

What employees want

According to the results of a Gallup poll reported last year in a Straits Times article “S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“ (8 Dec 2013), only 10% of employees polled reported feeling passionate and motivated about their work. Given the benefits of engaged employees (including lower absenteeism and turnover), it seems in the interests of employers to do more to boost engagement among employees.

An older study on local employees conducted in 2011 indicated monetary remuneration (including benefits) to be a key motivating factor. While fair compensation is cited as an important factor for creating a conducive working environment for employees (“What really motivates employees?”, Forbes, 26 Nov 2013), it’s important for employers to be aware that monetary rewards have their limitations. This is because monetary incentives reduce employees’ intrinsic motivation — referred to as the crowding out effect (Frey, 1997).

Extrinsic motivation produces relatively lower levels of task performance (read about those research findings here). Employees whose performance is motivated by a tangible reward, such as financial incentives, tend to put in less effort compared to employees driven by intrinsic motivation (assuming fair salary compensation). In contrast, recognition for work well done and guidance for career advancement in the form of coaching and mentorship are on employees’ wish list (see this list on Gallup). Not surprisingly, the study on 500 workers cited above finds local employees expressing the desire for their employers to provide and support a collaborative work environment.

According to Gallup, engaged employees are those with friendships at work. A 2012 study by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training articulates one of the key drivers for employee engagement — it is the relationship an employee has with his or her immediate supervisor. Building trust and rapport into the supervisor-employee relationship takes practice (here are some useful tips and guidelines), but reaps benefits in the long term.

More importantly, it is not necessary to assume that managers have an innate ability to listen and communicate effectively. Neither do all supervisors know how to provide feedback to employees. And mentorship requires bosses to genuinely care about their team. These are skills to be acquired through training and then honed for many more years to come.

There’s no magic wand for motivating employees. Dangling carrots can help initially. But recognizing work well done and providing guidance to achieve optimal performance will more likely to lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Bosses play key role in staff’s mental wellness

Voices | Today, 28 August 2013
bosses play key role in staff's mental wellness Read on >>

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.

Workplace wellness: The benefits of exercise

We know we should exercise. And we know how much we need to accomplish in a week. The gold standard for working adults aged 18 to 64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigourous physical activity, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But what does exercise, particularly that at the workplace, achieve?

A vast number of studies point to the health benefits that directly result from exercise and physical activity. Corporate wellness programmes designed to improve workers’ physical activity and/or their diet through exercise or education on a one-to-one or group level, significantly reduce body fat — a risk factor for cardiovascular disease — in 31 random-controlled studies (Groeneveld, Proper, van der Beek, Hildebrandt, & van Mechelen, 2010).

High-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol — another risk factor for cardiovascular disease — was significantly lower than baseline after a 4-year workplace programme to improve physical activity in 2929 factory workers in Japan, after controlling for effects from smoking (Naito, Nakayama, Okamura, Miura, Yanagita, Fujieda, Kinoshita et al., 2008).

Combining strength and aerobic fitness with cognitive-behavioural training and individually customized diet plans, was effective in reducing body mass index or BMI, body fat percentage, and blood pressure, in a randomized controlled study of 98 overweight workers in Denmark (Christensen, Faber, Ekner, Overgaard, Holtermann, & Sogaard, 2011).

Given that workplace fitness programmes result in lower risks for cardiovascular disease, the cost savings to organizations from having lower medical fees and insurance premiums are plain to see. And workplace fitness programmes not only improve anxiety and depression scores, but reduce absenteeism (Bhui, Dinos, Stansfeld, & White, 2008). In fact, for individuals with depression, a fitness programme lasting only 9 weeks of aerobic or strength/resistance training of varying intensity can bring about improvements in mental wellbeing and quality of life ratings (Craft & Perner, 2004).

So apart from making you healthier and your bosses happier, exercise makes you feel good.

Why? Well, current theory posits that exercise induces the release of endorphins which is associated with positive mood, effects an increase in temperature in specific brain regions resulting in muscle relaxation, and/or increases availability of mood-regulating neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin (Craft & Perner, 2004).

And physical activity is not confined to just aerobic and strength/resistance training. A 12-week-long poster and sticker campaign to get Swiss hospital staff to use the stairs brought about not only slimmer waists and the desired use of the stairs, but also reductions in body fat, BMI, HDL cholesterol, and blood pressure (Meyer, Kayser, Kossovsky, Sigaud, Carballo, Keller, Martin, Farpour-Lambert et al., 2010). A 6-months follow-up showed that while lift use had resumed — the stairs were sadly neglected — employees maintained their aerobic fitness and body fat.

So, time to take those stairs to work…

No idea that we had an EAP!

The benefits of corporate wellness programmes range from a return-on-investment or ROI of US$6 to a decrease of up to US$6 in health care costs.

An 2009 EASNA research note by Attridge and colleagues documents an ROI of US$3 to US$10 for every dollar invested in an employee assistance programme. Similarly, analysts in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article report a US$6 savings in healthcare costs for every dollar spent on employee wellness programmes, while recent data from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans for their Wellness and Value-Based Health Care survey revealed a US$1 to US$3 decrease in overall health care costs for every dollar spent on wellness programmes.

However, no organization can possibly reap the benefits of an EAP or corporate wellness programme if employees aren’t aware of the programme in the first place. As Miller asserts in a recent article for the Society for Human Resource Management“communication is the key to wellness success”.

Azzone and colleagues (2009) report that employees use EAP counselling services when their employers actively promote EAP services. Others make the cogent argument that periodic communication with employees to evaluate client satisfaction with EAP services not only demonstrates the value of the programme, but raises employee awareness about EAP services (Moore, 1989; see also Frost, 1990). As noted in a review by Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, and McCann (2007), employee awareness of EAP services and confidence in the confidential nature of EAP counselling are key to EAP utility. This is demonstrated in an empirical study sampling participants from six worksites: Trust and confidence in EAP services reliably predicted EAP utility (French, Dunlap, Roman, & Steele, 1997).

EAPs are only as effective as the efforts that an organization (and its EAP provider) makes to ensure that employees are aware about EAP services and the confidential nature of EAP counselling services.

EAP services: Promotion makes all the difference

So you have implemented a comprehensive employee assistance programme at your workplace. But is that enough? There is ample evidence in the literature to suggest that EAP services are most effective with a programme that is actively promoted and advertised to employees.

Azzone, McCann, Merrick, Hiatt, Hodgkin, & Horgan (2009) found that employees reported greater utility of EAP counselling services when given access to well-promoted EAP services, which included counselling and educational literature about mental health wellness through talks and online resources.

In this study of nonmissing data from more than 850,000 participants, analysis using logistic regression showed that more employees used EAP counselling services when there was a high rather than low or moderate level of promotion of EAP services by the employer. Interestingly, employees with a more comprehensive EAP were less likely to seek counselling: This may be because an EAP which emphasizes prevention likely results in fewer employees needing counselling services.

Yu, Lin, & Hsu (2009) investigated that 600 Taiwanese employees working in a high-tech industry experiencing high levels of stress. The authors showed that employees’ confidence in dealing with stressors and stressful situations directly influenced the level of stress experienced and rate of burnout documented, leading them to conclude that increasing employees’ self-efficacy through the promotion of effective EAPs would be helpful in alleviating employees stress.

Promotion of existing EAP counselling services within the organization is a step forward to reducing staff turnover, as well as days spent absent from work due to stress-related ill health.

Sleepless in Singapore

According to recent workplace surveys in Singapore, increasing workload and high expectations from line managers are often cited job stressors.

Empirical research provides further support.  A 1989-1990 study on 2570 Singapore professionals found that performance pressure and work-family conflict to be primary stressors for the sample comprising GPs, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses, and life insurance personnel (Chan, Lai, Ko, & Boey, 2000). Both stressors predicted participants’ level of job stress, while these and poor job prospects predicted the level of job satisfaction reported by participants.

A 1999 report on 257 study participants in Singapore identifies work demands, relationships with others, career concerns, systems maintenance, role ambiguity and administrative tasks to be key stressors in the IT profession (Lim & Teo, 1999). An earlier report documented a reliable association between occupational stress and anxiety- depression in a local sample of 1,043 nurses (Boey, Chan, Ko, Goh, & Lim, 1997).

In a recent book chapter in “Work Stress and Coping Among Professionals”, Ko, Chan, & Lai (2007) reported empirical data for a 1990 study on 316 Singapore secondary school and junior college teachers. Teachers in this study rated deadlines, work overload from meetings and coordination work, lack of student motivation, and resultant student misbehaviour as stressful. Difficulty in balancing work and family life was another source of stress. Factor analysis however revealed work overload to be the primary stressor for this local sample.

A more recent investigation of job stress among local employees includes a study of 164 school teachers by (Fang & Wang, 2005; 2006). Although the study measured turnover intention – teachers indicating an intention to leave their job – rather than observed staff turnover rate, occupational stress levels in addition to employees’ statements about their sense of commitment to their institution and profession, were reliable predictors of the outcome measure.

In their review of the literature, Lim, Bogossian, & Ahern (2010) document high work demands (and conflict at work) to be a major stressor for nurses. Fang’s (2001) study on 180 local nurses further reports satisfaction with supervisors (among other factors) a contributing factor to whether nurses express an intention to leave their job.

As mentioned in a previous post, work overload, as well as role ambiguity and co-worker relationships, is a primary stressor across different sectors – banking, finance, and insurance (Ho, 1995). Not surprising then, that work overload and job stress are theme songs in recent polls (e.g., JobCentral, VMWare New Way of Life).

Getting the most out of your EAP

As detailed in the buyer’s guide to EAPs by the US Employee Assistant Professionals Association (see also this description of EAPs), a quality EAP should provide a 24/7 crisis hotline, confidential assessment and counselling services, referral support, critical incident response service, EAP orientation for all employees, manager training on manager referrals with training support materials, promotion of EAP awareness among employees, annual EAP utilization reports, programme and client satisfaction evaluation.

EAP services should provide access to qualified clinical professionals who adhere to professional ethical standards and guarantee confidential record keeping. Timely responses to manager-referrals and punctual feedback on EAP utility, programme evaluation, and satisfaction further distinguish quality EAPs.

Evident in the EAP pricing per head cited in a UK buyer’s guide to EAP, it’s clear that you get what you pay for. Comprehensive EAPs which offer on-site counselling, critical incident response services, EAP orientation for all employees, and manager/supervisor training, as well as the ubiquitous 24/7 emergency hotline and referral support, will deliver a quality service which promotes awareness and utility of EAP services among employees.

And as we know, accessibility to EAP services, particularly EAPs which focus on preventive measures through mental wellness talks and online resources, is key to helping employees effectively deal with stress in both the professional and personal arena (Azzone, McCann, Merrick, Hiatt, Hodgkin, & Horgan, 2009; Yu, Lin, & Hsu, 2009).

What’s the return on investment for EAPs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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