Not happy at work? Try some different solutions

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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.

 

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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.

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.

Procrastinating and stressed out?

It’s usually something that we’d rather not do. Something that we dread getting started on. Because it’s difficult. And because we have no ready answer or solution. We probably don’t really know how to get started on it. And we can’t visualize what steps we need to take in order to getting the job done.

Overcoming procrastination

Procrastination is an art form that we’ve been trying to perfect over the years. According to a 2009 study in Psychological Science, we tend to procrastinate when we view the task in abstract terms. In contrast, we’ll get started on the task earlier when we can articulate “the how, when and where of doing the task”.

Strategies from Real Simple — the lifestyle guru for getting organized – include doing the more difficult thing first and breaking the task down into smaller chunks. Once you’re done that, you can get down to business:

1. Stay focused on your task
Self-control and Freedom are desktop applications which block your ability to surf the internet for the number of hours which you’ve set aside for work. But we often need to access the internet while we work. And for that, we have Anti-Social, an app stops you checking Facebook incessantly while you work on the important stuff.

2. Unplug from your mobile device
We can manage our smartphone addiction with Focus Lock and Pause which locks specific apps on your phone for 25 minutes at a time (or for a customized amount of time). Offtime is another Android app which allows important calls get through and essential apps to function while you work uninterrupted on that all important assignment.

3. Save your willpower for the task
Research suggests that our willpower is a limited resource. Using our willpower on one thing means that we have less of it for another thing. For example, resisting dessert at lunch could mean that we would subsequently have less willpower to get started on our dreaded task in the afternoon. That means you’ll procrastinate less if you’re not also trying to will yourself to the treadmill or trying not to eat the last piece of cake in the fridge.

4. Do something useful
Rather than helplessly agonizing over why you haven’t started on the dreaded task, you can get on with something else that needs your immediate attention. You can start with something easy. At least you’ll feel accomplished and productive when you finally shift your attention to the not-so-easy stuff. And while doing the easy task, you may have had time to think about how you can tackle the difficult task.

5. Gain some self-awareness
We often get carried away with checking off things on our to-do list, and forget to examine why we keep postponing some tasks until they can no longer be postponed. It may be helpful to list the tasks you procrastinate on, as well as why and how you procrastinate on these tasks. Recognizing that you are unsure how to complete the task could lead you to brainstorm for solutions and then make a plan of action.

6. Reward yourself
There are other occasions when you have the solution, and know exactly the steps involved. But you procrastinate all the same. Maybe because it’s a thankless, tedious, and time-consuming task; in which case, visualizing a reward that you’ll give yourself when the job gets done, could be all the motivation you need. You may benefit from installing the Procraster app, which combines block functions (you can’t play Candy Crush or check Facebook) with a reward system (you get a timely reminder to get coffee and cake).

7. Seek expert assistance
Perhaps you tend to procrastinate about everything. Find out if you’re a chronic procrastinator by taking this test. And if you are, seeking guidance through a counselling session can help you kick the habit.

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.

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.

Maybe work isn’t your happy place

Maybe work isn't your happy place

Not long ago, a study reported that a substantial number of people were found to have lower levels of stress hormone while at the office than when at home. This finding downplays the stress at the workplace. To be more precise, men were the ones more likely to experience stress at the office than home.

But it doesn’t discount the fact that people still experience stress at the workplace. As many as 20% of those polled in a 2013 HPB survey reported high levels of job stress. That’s 2 in every 10 employees. And almost half of those polled in a separate survey (comprising at least 400 employees per country) reported a lack of job satisfaction. More disturbing is the finding that over half of those polled in a recent LinkedIn survey would consider sacrificing a workplace friendship for promotion. That spells for a happy workplace. Not.

Although job stress often surfaces from employees managing heavy workloads, there are many other factors which impact employee engagement. Things which managers and supervisors play an enormous role in shaping. Things like team dynamics, personality clashes, and leadership styles.

Here are 10 ways line managers can help:

1. Social support
A Gallup poll found that engaged employees were more likely to have friends at the workplace. Line managers play a role in cultivating a work culture which encourages friendships. Look here for tips.

2. Work-life balance
Employees are more likely to be engaged and productive when their leaders value sustainable ways of working, which includes supporting work-life balance. A HBR survey reveals that it’s important for leaders to practice what they preach. It’s a tune that’s getting more airtime these days.

3. Find ways to get active
We all know why we should invest in moderate to vigorous exercise three times a week and incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains in our daily diet. It does wonders for our cardiovascular health. It protects against dementia and certain types of cancer. But workplace health programmes may not always stress a key benefit (no pun intended). Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Here’s an incentive for line managers to support the Get Fit programme at the office!

4. Find time to relax
Research supports the view that engaging in relaxation activities helps us manage our stress. A recent INSEAD study shows that spending just 15 minutes focused on breathing enabled people to make better decisions. Another recent study shows that creative pursuits are an effective way to recharge and destress. Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998). Findings that extroverts relax more easily than introverts suggests that we need to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all way to relax. 

5. Assertive communication
Exercise is an excellent way to get back into a good mood. But we’re probably not going to be running a treadmill or smashing a ball against the wall when given extra responsibilities at work. There are no appropriate moment to go “en garde”. Or signal for us to put on the boxing gloves. We can however learn to say no. Line managers have the responsibility to encourage staff to practice assertive communication.

6. Sleep is underrated
Sleep is not just for those who party hard. It’s for those who want to learn, solve problems, remember things, and make good decisions (here’s the science). What’s more, sleep is the anti-aging treatment. But you’ve heard this many times over. But did you know that exposure to blue light which your smart devices emit in large quantities makes it more difficult to get to sleep quickly or to get good quality sleep? It’s time to tell your staff to switch off their devices and get more REM and deep sleep – essential for enhancing job performance (tips at the end of this article).

7. Use your Employee Assistance Programme!
Family conflict affects relationships at the office, not just at home. A recent study shows that conflict at the home causes employees to react negatively to co-workers and to use fewer adaptive strategies (e.g., social support, assertiveness) at work. Another study shows that mood affects productivity. Those coping with a difficult life event (e.g., bereavement, illness in the family) make more mistakes when adding two numbers together than those not experiencing such an event. Those coping with life events also report lower happiness and productivity ratings than their peers. Managers in organizations with an EAP can encourage staff to use their EAP to tackle work-related and/or personal problems. Recent research indicates that “organizational support programs, which aim to improve employee well-being, are not being used by the employees who need them most”.

8. Training evaluation
A 1997 study showed that an in-house time management training programme, which enhanced employee’s capacity for impulse control and for regulating their own emotions, had a 1989% return in a 3-week period. It’s noteworthy that employees were not given generic, practical tips but instead encouraged to manage their emotions. Most importantly, the organization measured outcomes in terms of employee performance (e.g., rated by co-workers, line managers) not satisfaction with the training programme.

9. Organizational structure
It’s not hard to see how workplace harrassment can negatively impact employee well-being and physical health, in turn affecting productivity and employee engagement. But a recent review of the literature indicates that workplace harrassment does not arise from just personality clashes alone. The way an organization is structured may make it easier for bullying to take place. So it’s ever more important now than before that senior management explicitly supports respectful behaviour.

10. Self-care
Fair bosses are the best! They produce engaged employees and productive companies. But they’re prone to burn out (evidence here). So self-care is imperative for managers and supervisors. That is, doing all the above themselves. This includes: “getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office”

Bosses, take note!

When should you tell your colleague to “take a holiday”?

workplace stress

Going by the elevated stress levels reported by employees in Singapore (read our earlier post) and lack of job satisfaction bemoaned by many in the local workplace (discussed in an earlier post too), it would appear that for some employees, the answer may be now!

According to a recent workplace survey, as many as 94% of bosses held the view that employees shouldnot bring work home. It doesn’t add up. Or bosses say “have work-life balance”. But they hand their employees more work than that which can be completed within working hours. Clearly, there are going to be instances where bosses say one thing and do another. It also doesn’t help when bosses continue working outside office hours. 

Numerous studies have highlighted the effects of chronic stress on employees’ emotional and physical well-being. Prolonged exposure to stress weakens the immune system, causing employees to be absent from work and less productive when working with a stuffy head and sniffy nose at work (read this Fortune article). Burnout leads to higher staff turnover and elevated business costs. More crucially, it may mean losing valuable employees. It’s the reason why some companies have started to insist on employees taking their annual leave.  

Depression is explained as a condition in which an individual experiences “a persistent and pervasive low mood that is not affected by external circumstances”, with the individual losing interest in activities which once interested them. And it may escape the notice of most bosses, but the fact is that employees who are experiencing burnout, may be actually experiencing symptoms of depression (here’s an explanation of the two terms). 

But what can you do about it?

Here are some steps you can take:

1. Find out if you and/or your colleagues are experiencing burnout.
Complete this self-assessment questionnaire.

2. Recognise signs and symptoms of depression.
Mayo Clinic has a fact sheet on burnout. Understand that someone with depression cannot “cheer up” and “get over it“. It’s not just about feeling “sad“. One in 17 has depression in Singapore (find out more). 

3. Raise awareness about burnout at your workplace.
This article on Understanding and Avoiding Burnout has tips for managers. 

4. Provide a supportive environment for preventing burnout at your workplace.
Here’s a systematic list of things you and your organization can do to help.

5. Reach out to your colleagues.
Find the right words, but don’t forget to take care of your own emotional well-being.

World Mental Health Day. It’s two months and 19 days away. What are you doing on World Mental Health Day?

Waving the magic wand at work

What employees want

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clothes — The long and short of it all

We already know about the benefits of exercise. Exercise increases life satisfaction, improves mood, and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety (read this for the full story). Blah blah blah…yes, exercise makes us feel better. And it plays an important role in helping us maintain our self-worth (here’s the evidence for that claim).

There are other things which raise self-esteem: positive self-appraisal (what’s that?) and self-awareness (how can I achieve that?). As with exercise, we see what we need to do, but the legs, arms, and mind aren’t particularly motivated to get us there. Gadgets or no gadgets.

There is however a speedier solution to boosting one’s confidence (note: it is of course easy once you know how): It’s about what you wear.

Clothes make the dog!

There is evidence that how we feel affects what we wear. In a 2012 study by Fletcher and Pine, women reported themselves more likely to wear baggy clothing and jeans when experiencing a low mood (e.g., feelings of depression) and more likely to wear their favourite dress when feeling happy.

There’s evidence that what you wear affects how you behave. A study showed that putting on a doctor’s white coat made participants perform better on a cognitive task (here’s that study explained).

And there’s evidence that what you wear affects how others perceive you. A study found that participants rated someone in a tailored suit as more successful and confident than the same person in a off-the-peg version. Findings from yet another study revealed that a subtle change in the length of the skirt — whether it was just above the knee of just below the knee — influenced how study participants viewed the person wearing the clothes. In the condition where the person was introduced as a “senior manager”, participants judged her to be more intelligent, confident, and responsible with the longer than shorter skirt. Turn these findings around, and they actually tell us that we make snap judgements about others (and ourselves) based on what they (or what we) wear.

And a 2013 poll of 100 respondents found that 2 in 5 women believed that wearing red increased their professional confidence. Clearly, we know that clothes do affect how we feel about ourselves, as demonstrated in this guide on How to dress for success by Real Simple (look here for tips on dressing well for men).

So what clothes make us feel better about ourselves? There’s really only one thing to know and that is to wear clothes that fit you! It’s important to put on clothes which fit, not clothes that are in fashion right now. Real Simple has a guide for different body shapes, while BBC programme What Not To Wear offers tips on making the most of our assets. Wearing a pencil skirt that stops exactly at the knee (not an inch above it or an inch below it) or jeans which are bootcut or skinny depending on your body shape is half the battle won.

The other half is what you do with that extra confidence you’ve gained.

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
~Mark Twain