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.

 

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!

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

 

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

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.