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.

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Drink up! It’s good for you!

Champagne

We usually think only of food. Should we reduce our intake of saturated fat? Are whole grain carbs better for us? Is too much sugar a bad thing? Will eating half a plate of vegetables at each meal reduce our risk of heart attacks and cancer? (The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes).

We’re usually stressed about what we eat. And what we eat often adds to our stress. But our drinking habits may not be helping us. Here’s a closer look at the health benefits (or lack of benefits) of what we drink:

Alcohol
Previous studies found that moderate drinking reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes. This has lead us to think that having a drink a day helps. A 2015 prospective study which followed 15,000 middle-aged adults for 24 to 25 years found that heart failure rate was lower among moderate drinkers, those who drank up to 7 drinks a week, than heavier drinkers. But the same study also found that heart failure rate was highest for former drinkers.

There’s a reason why they stopped drinking. Not everyone can have just that one drink. Which is why mental health professionals argue that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” (Guardian, March 2011). Drinking impacts our sleep, immune system, our ability to think, remember, and make decisions, and most importantly, our mental health.

Moreover, research indicates that it’s exercise not wine consumption which improves cardiovascular health. Both red and white wine lower undesirable cholesterol levels (LDL), but only exercise increases desirable cholesterol (HDL).

In fact, health experts advocate cutting down on alcohol. Why? Because it doesn’t actually protect against heart attacks or stroke. A 2015 prospective study of 53,000 people found little or no health benefit to drinking alcohol. And two other recent studies confirm the benefits of drinking less: Researchers who studied those who get easily flushed from drinking and who therefore drink less over time, have better cardiovascular health.

Need help? Read this.

Soft drinks
It’s getting more and more difficult to recommend diet soft drinks. A 2012 prospective study which followed over 2,000 adults over a decade found that drinking diet soft drinks every day increased the risk of stroke and heart attacks.

recent study found that those who drank diet soft drinks ate more than those who drank the regular version if they were overweight or obese. Another recent study showed that diet soft drinks increased the risk for diabetes.

Diet drinks don’t help us save on calories. Sugar substitutes tell your body to expect energy-rich food but when none comes, your body goes into energy preservation mode: It stores fat.

What about having the real thing, but in smaller amounts? Some nutrition experts suggest a mini can of Coca-cola to be a good snack (more about that here). But beware the 90 calories in that teeny weeny can of sugar.

Here are the figures (http://cspinet.org). Know the facts (http://hsph.harvard.edu) and make up your own mind.

Coffee
Coffee drinking has a number of known health benefits, but can we have too much of a good thing?

2014 prospective study which followed health professionals found that increasing coffee intake by 1 cup a day over a period of 4 years reduced the risk of diabetes, while other studies show that coffee consumption helps our cardiovascular health. Moderate coffee intake — 2 to 4 cups a day — reduced the risk of heart disease by 20%, while drinking at least 1 cup of coffee (or 3 cups of green tea) a day reduced the risk of stroke by 20%.

Coffee increases our stress hormones and raises our blood pressure, but the current consensus is that drinking up to 6 cups of coffee a day doesn’t spell bad news for our heart (read this article). Research finds that coffee increases the risk of fatal heart attacks, but this is because more smokers drink a lot of coffee. A 2014 prospective study which followed 131,401 Paris residents for 3.5 years found more smokers among heavy coffee drinkers (e.g., 4 cups a day) than moderate and non-drinkers. When the researchers took into account the effect of smoking, they found that coffee was not a risk for heart attacks.

So, have your cup of java. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’ll give you immunity.

Black tea
Surprisingly, black tea may be better than green tea for slowing the glucose absorption, thereby being of benefit to people with diabetes.

But the cool thing is that our stress response recovery improves with black tea consumption. In a 2006 study where the smell and taste of tea were masked, elevated stress hormones induced by a stressful event returned to baseline levels more quickly in those who drank tea four times a day for 6 weeks than those given a placebo. That sounds like a lot of tea, but it’s not an unusual amount for those who live in the land of scones and clotted cream, fish and chips, and overcast skies.

Cuppa for me, please.

Green tea
A 2014 study found that green tea improved cognitive functioning through improved neural connectivity, while a 2013 study found that green tea enhanced frontal brain activity.

A recent study indicates that an active ingredient in green tea may be responsible for suppressing the growth of pancreatic cancer cells. In addition to the potential use of green tea for lowering the risk of pancreatic cancer, flavanols known as catechins consumed from a daily dose of green (or black) tea have been shown to reliably lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Unlike black tea which is usually brewed at temperatures near boiling point, green tea is best brewed at about 80° Celcius. And it’s not just about taste. A 2011 study that finds the best way to extract catechins is to brew green tea at 80° Celcius for half an hour. So it pays to wait for your water to cool (or you can pour it into cups and back again, especially if you’re the kind that stands around and impatiently paces or taps the kitchen floor).

So now you can’t say that you don’t know how to get a nice cup of longjing (龙井).

Herbal tea
You might already know about the sleep inducing benefits of drinking chamomile tea. But you might not realise that the same properties which induce sleep also relieve muscle spasms, suggesting that chamomile tea can be helpful for getting us to relax.

Two other teas also have calming properties. Peppermint tea and ginger tea are known to help with digestion. Peppermint tea soothes inflammatory pain in the gut, providing relief from irritable bowel syndrome which can be related to stress, while daily intake of ginger reduces muscle pain.

Fresh juices
Along with red wine and tea, citrus juices which are high in flavanones have been found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. But watch out for that delicious thing known as fructose – it’s easy to consume more than the recommended serving size when you’re drinking juice out of a bottle.

So, the moral of the story is you can have more coffee and tea. But beware of the sugar-laden condensed milk that you’re adding to your kopi-kosong or teh-siu-dai!

Ways to promote healthy lifestyles at the workplace

Someone in HR usually has the good fortune of having job of promoting a healthy lifestyle to the rest of the office. It may even fall on the shoulders of an interest group or a recreational activities committee. In other organizations, these brave souls have an official title – the workplace health committee.

But whatever their title, they will want to impress upon others the merits of eating more fruits and veggies. They will want to persuade their colleagues to switch from polished to unpolished rice. And they will aim to get everyone to chalk up 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. They will cheer them all to get an annual basic health screen and goad others into the lecture theatre to learn more how they can manage their stress.

There are of course national campaigns with prizes to help these fortunate employees with their cause. And there are resources to fund workplace health endeavors. But the path to slow food and an active lifestyle is often paved with good intentions. With many a detour to the fast food restaurant and a back alley shortcut to chilli crab, Hokkien mee, and char kway teow. So, they could probably always do with more help.

Here are some lessons to be learnt from consumer research:

1. Some things are best seen in black and white
Some messages are best presented in monochrome. A 2015 study found that participants made more rational decisions when information was presented using black-and-white images than colour. In fact, researchers suggest that monochrome could be useful for situations concerning a distant future. Promoting a healthy lifestyle for the benefit of the family or a healthy retirement, may be best made in black-and-white, not in colour.

2. Don’t shortchange your employees when serving healthy food
We’re likely to enjoy the food more if we pay more for it, according to a 2014 study. Customers who participated in the study rated the food to be more enjoyable when they paid $8 for a all-you-can-eat high quality buffet in upstate New York than when they paid $4 for it. Those who paid less were more likely to say that they had overeaten, to feel guilty about the meal, and to say that they liked the meal less and less in the course of the meal. So don’t undercharge your employees for good quality healthy meals at the staff canteen.

3. Help us make good decisions with fewer choices
Having too many choices can lead to poor decision making. A 2015 study shows that participants don’t make optimal choices when they have to consider all 16 options together. Rather, they make better decisions when they use a strategy called sequential tournament, where they pick one of four options, until they make a final choice from the preliminary selections. Giving fewer options (and dietary information) at the canteen can help employees make healthier food choices.

4. Lighting affects our eating experience
We appear to experience emotions with more intensity on sunny days compared to overcast days. That we perceive food to taste more spicy and judge others to be more attractive when these are presented in bright light, are among the findings of this recent study. It seems that emotional messages are best received in bright lighting, whereas rational decisions may be better done with subdued lighting. That means it may be a good idea to turn up the lights for healthy lifestyle posters in the lift and lobby, and turn down the lights at the office canteen.

5. When to use questions and when to use statements?
Participants in a recent study responded more positively to ads with statements when they were in a state of higher excitement, but preferred ads phrased as a question when they were in a lower state of excitement. In the study, respondents were listening to music that was either stimulating or calming. It seems that when we’ve got a lot to process, we prefer to be told what to do; when we’re not so preoccupied, being asked a question will pique our interest. So poster campaigns in a busy lunch canteen will fare better as statements, whereas poster campaigns in a boring corner of the office may be better received as questions?

Just some food for thought.

It’s another year already! Happy Chinese New Year!

chinese new year 2015

Bak kwa, pineapple tarts, and love letters are among the things we look forward to this time of year. Ang baos can be a source of cheer (or cheerful pain), depending on whether you’re receiving or giving them. Some of us survive the awkward questions, gossips, and intergenerational social interactions during this festive season in much better form than others.

The two days off this week for visiting relatives and hosting guests at home can actually be more stressful than it should be.

In fact, cleaning the house in time is a source of stress. Clearing out boxes of nostalgia from our dusty cupboards can push our emotional buttons. Stocking up on raw foods in the overfull fridge and freezer or arranging for a place for the family to dine on reunion night can also be another source of stress. Heavy conversations at the table of tense reunion dinners are also things we don’t look forward to.

So here are some tips to enjoy the holidays!


1. Try some cleaning hacks to get it done faster

Try these 36 creative solutions and these other 50 tips for a sparkling house. It also helps to not aim for perfection but have realistic de-cluttering goals for you and your family.

2. Know what you will and won’t eat before hand
For those who can’t have lots of salt, oil, protein, and/or simple carbohydrates such as sugar (e.g., those with diabetes), it’s helpful to know beforehand which foods are on the “okay” list and which aren’t. While it’s wise to indulge in moderation and engage in smarter eating, it’s helpful to look up that information in this list of Chinese New Year foods here and here before visitations start.

3. Try these stress management strategies
If you don’t manage to stick to your food plan on Day 1, you can always get back to it on Day 2. And for getting out sticky situations (though sugary nian gao fried with egg is rather good and is highly recommended, especially at this time of year), try these tips from Drive.SG. Negotiating family members can also be tricky: Try these tips for communicating effectively.

4. Tips for parents
One of the top tips from the experts involves lowering your expectations, while another is about being flexible with schedules. Read more in our previous blog post here.

5. Exercise to de-stress
It’s the New Year. So that means you can’t use the scissors or knife. You can’t clean or sweep anything. But traditions didn’t say you can’t go for a walk, job, a game of friendly badminton, or a swim. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. It can be a walk to the Chingay parade (1 March 2015), the Open House at the Singapore Philatelic Museum (19 to 20 Feb 2015), the night shows in Kreta Ayer (till 18 Feb 2015), goat (kid) feeding and photography exhibit at the Singapore Zoo (18 to 22 Feb 2015), or the floral displays in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay (to 8 March 2015).

6. Spend time sharing traditions with the family
Here’s a list of why we celebrate the way we celebrate Chinese New Year! Don’t forget to relax, sleep in, and enjoy the company of your friends and family during the festivities.

29 ways to destress

There are only 3 days left before we can enjoy a day of rest (and possibly too much murukku). It’s only 68 days before the long weekend during Christmas this year and the ensuing three working days before the New Year, when everyone is at their desk but no one wants to do any work. Another 42 days to filing corporate annual tax returns. And another 26 days before children are free to roam the shopping malls downtown and prowl the science centre, zoo, and bird park.

In order that we don’t burn ourselves out to survive another fast-paced year in the corporate jungle, we can innoculate ourselves against stress. Here’s some things to try:

Coffee and Cookie Beneath Large Cork Noteboard

29. Do you precrastinate?
We can feel stressed out by our “to do” list, which more often than not gets longer as the day yawns on. Sometimes we get so stressed that the last thing that’s added to our list, is also the first thing we tackle, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else. Choosing to reply to a new email (precrastination) gets it off our list but may be counterproductive. It could be more efficient to let emails accumulate and reply to all of them at the end of the day.

 Don't disturb

28. Go away!
A 2014 study argues that multiple interruptions reduce quality of work produced. It may be a good idea to put your phone on “do not disturb” (only important calls will get through) and stop your email client from running in the background.

breakfast

27. Indulge in a short break at the office
A 2014 study found that employees who took breaks while at work reported more satisfaction at work. But the study also showed that these were usually employees who had a physical job, or those who had jobs with a lot of face-to-face interactions, and needed to decompress with “alone time”. But breaks don’t have to be “workplace internet leisure browsing“; they can be time well-spent filling up at the water cooler or having breakfast!

Facebook

26. Facebook at the office
According to this 2014 study, taking a 5-minute break to browse non-work-related websites helps younger employees stay focused at work. Using company internet to surf Facebook for 5 minutes was a more effective break than a similar duration spent comparing online insurance policies, doing nothing, or not taking a break. But it’s not for those aged 30 and up…

Have a cuppa

25. Smartphone breaks (and tea breaks) can be helpful 
We’re better at paying attention to a task which requires constant vigilance (think air traffic controllers) when we’re allowed brief breaks. A 2014 study observed that employees, who spent time playing a game, checking Facebook, or posting on Twitter while at work, had higher levels of mental well-being at the end of the day. The microbreaks help by allowing us to destress in between tasks. Though those in organizations where smartphones are not allowed, will probably need to do it the old-fashioned way — talking to co-workers in person or taking a tea break in another part of the building.

Video Game Competition

24. When TV is bad for you…
Apparently it’s hard to relax by watching TV or playing computer or video games. A recent study suggests that when we use TV and gaming as a distraction to escape more pressing tasks, we fail to be destressed from watching TV or from playing a computer or video game. Instead, we feel guilty for procrastinating on the pressing tasks. That’s not to say TV is not an effective way to destress. It is, but only if we’re not using it as a means to escape from a problem. If you’re not escaping, then go ahead…watch TV (skip to #13 and #14).

Walking the dog

23. If you must procrastinate…
Then choose something that you have to do. If you’re at home, that could be the laundry, dishes, ironing, walking the dog, or dinner prep. If you’re at the office, that could be clearing out your inbox, tidying up your desk, backing up your data, or sorting out your filing. At least you’ll feel accomplished at the end of the day.

MP900341511

22. Get those creative juices flowing
A recent study has found that employees with creative pursuits outside work are more productive than their peers who don’t have such interests. Even being an audience member at a dance or musical performance or a visitor to an art gallery or museum exhibition can bestow benefits which include improved mental wellbeing and mood. It may be that creative hobbies help us relax during our downtime, which in turn boosts our effectiveness when we’re on the job in the work week.

Woman listening to music.

21. Enjoy your time at work and at home
Although not all tasks are suited to being accompanied by music, music can be helpful in boosting productivity. And putting up the bass can make one feel empowered. So, put on those headphones and turn up the bass before that all-important client meeting, business negociation, or employee performance review.

oregon coast

20. Channel your spending towards friends and family
Spending on things which provide us opportunities for social interactions (e.g., meals, theatre shows) makes us happy. Relative to spending on things which are only appreciated by us. Research also shows that we’re happier when we spend on others rather than ourselves. And we’re most happy about charity donations when these further a cause supported by friends or family. What all this tells us is that we value social experiences. By that reasoning, we should expect to be ecstatic about making a home-made picnic for friends and family at Marina Barrage. Or a potluck get-together with all your office BFFs.

working like a dog

19. The magic of delegation
Some of the things that we do don’t need to be done by us. But giving responsibilities away takes practice. It helps if we also prepare by finding out ahead of time whom we can give the tasks away to. Here are some tips and a how-to guide.

yes - notepad & pen

18. Give it away, give it away now
There’s a difference between something which is important but not urgent, and something which is urgent but not important. It’s tough deciding which to do first. Here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do.

List of things to do

17. Say no (or else…)
Much easier said that done. But since we don’t have superpowers, we need to know what we do want to do and don’t want to do. It’s not just about finding ways to do things more efficiently (though that helps). We can do things which fit into the time available. Here’s how to go about doing it and a useful fact sheet. If not, you can appoint someone to remind you to say no.

Don't fill your diary with unimportant things to do

16. Be assertive, not passive-aggressive
Part of “learning to say no” is learning to be assertive. Being assertive means saying what your needs and feelings are, with the right body language. This helps you manage your stress, particularly if we have difficulty turning down more work responsibilities. And prevent you from “vaguebooking” and “posting statuses for attention” for the next two hours, when you should be working!

Low angle view of a young woman playing basketball

15. Look into ways to improve yourself
Key competencies for employees in today’s workplace include awareness of one’s emotions, ability to manage one’s emotions, ability to motivate oneself, empathy, and the ability to manage relationships with others. You can’t change others; you can only change yourself. It’s an important part of stress management. Find out about yourself here.

Find the silver lining

14. Laugh it off
Laughter alleviates stress and protects against heart disease (read this article). It’s not just common sense. Laughter is the best medicine: Patients were found to cope better when their long-term chronic illnesses were explained with cartoons. Seeing the funny side of things helps us cope when life gets stressful (here’s the science behind it). Now you have an excuse to read Sherman’s lagoon. Or view some self-deprecating thoughts.

BFFs

13. Have a good cry (and a friend to hold your hand)

Some argue that crying has a stress-reducing effect, but it appears that the benefits of a good cry may depend on who’s doing the crying and who they’re with at the time of their crying. Findings from a 2008 study suggests that having emotional support in the form of friends and family produces positive outcomes from the crying episode. So, station your social support network on your sofa, get ready the tissues, and turn on the K-drama channel…

Laughter is the best medicine

12. Watch a funny movie
A recent study found that watching films with a stressful scene (heart surgery in the film Vertical Limit) makes our heart beat faster. And not in a good way. In contrast, watching a funny movie reduces anxiety levels. A 1991 study showed that we’re better at solving a problem when we’re experiencing a positive emotion than a negative one. It appears that we are more apt to think of possible solutions when we’re feeling happy.

Anticipating is just as good

11. Ready, steady, laugh!
In fact, just knowing that we’re about to laugh relieves stress. Anticipating a funny movie lowered stress hormones (cortisol) and two other mood-regulating hormones (adrenalin and a dopamine-related brain chemical). Amazing. Time to self-medicate with Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me 2!

Education

10. Spend time on your financial health
When we have money problems at home, we spend time at work solving these problems or worrying about them. All this worrying can lead us to destressing in less than healthy ways. So it pays to keep tabs on your spending, saving, and investing (here are some tips for getting started).

Boy Photographing Man

9. Spend time with your kids
Toddler tantrums and preschool meltdowns are unlikely to be your idea of a restful weekend. Odd as it may sound, children can behave in much more predictable ways when they spend more time with their parents. And if parents engage in warm and consistent parenting, focusing on rewarding desirable behaviour and understanding their young children’s needs and feelings.

Frustrated Mother and Daughter

8. Spend time with your older kids too
Respectful communication is easier when you spend time doing day-to-day things with your teenagers. You may want to try a problem-solving approach when addressing a testy topic. Or assess the various sources of stress that your children are facing before tackling disagreeable topics.

DJ with Gear

7. Defend your ears
A study which found that elevated traffic noise produced higher blood pressure and heart rate, and higher levels of stress hormone, also showed that even low-level noise elicited a stress response, resulting in reduced motivation. Aside from sleep disturbances which in turn affect our ability to cope with stress, traffic noise is also thought to contribute to stress-related health problems such as stroke and heart disease. There are solutions being proposed in dense cities, but ear plugs are a good short-term solution in the meantime.

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6. Greener is better
The participants of a large scale study reported better mental wellbeing as soon as they moved to a greener neighbourhood and this improvement was sustained for as long as 3 years after the move. In another study, residents in a neighbourhood with more trees and vegetation had fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Remarkable.

mid section view of a woman cutting vegetables

5. Popeye was right
Investing in a plant-based diet, as well as physical activity as part of one’s daily routine, a strong social support network, and a purpose-driven life, is one of the secrets to getting older with good mental and physical health.

Tall Green Tree

4. Increase your sunshine vitamin
Nurses were more alert and experienced improved mood when they spent more time with daylight than artificial light (read about the study here). Blue light, which is more available from the morning sun than evening sun, regulates our sleep patterns, which in turn affects our ability to pay attention and solve problems during our working hours. Besides that, sunlight also provides us with vitamin D, which boosts your immune system and facilitates calcium absorption. Time to get make hay while the sun shines!

Woman Stretching in Bed with a Man Sleeping Beside Her

3. Get some zzz!
Whether it’s from disrupted sleep or a lack of sleep, poor quality sleep compromises our ability to remember things and impacts our mood. Studies also show that sleep deprivation puts adolescents at risk of depression and children at risk of obesity. The less we sleep, the faster we age. And here’s the really bad news: lack of sleep makes us crave junk food! Sleep is definitely a must-have.

Head to Head

2. Mindfulness
Studies show that spending a small amount of time a day focusing on breathing helps to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, alleviating stress and reduces burnout. Other benefits include improvements in other domains such as attentiondecision-makingimmune health, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness is not for everyone so similar techniques including yoga and tai chi are other alternatives. Yoga has been shown to improve brain function and psychological mood, lessen anxiety, lower inflammation, and alleviate stress. Relaxation is the cornerstone in managing stress.

Group of People Playing Volleyball on the Beach

1. Keep exercising!
Being physically active means having better physical wellbeing, brain function, and memory capacity. Exercise is not only effective in treating depression but prevents the onset of depression and reduces anxiety levels. Long-term physical activity has anti-aging properties, while exercise has been shown to suppress chronic inflammation. No pain, no gain.

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!

There’s no sugar-coating it

Food is a national pastime.

We all scream for ice cream!

CNN Travel names chicken rice, char kway teow, wantan mee, chai tow kuay, and chill crab as the top 5 foods locals can’t live without (surprisingly, katong laksa didn’t make it to the top 5; it’s listed at #14). According to a 2012 Mastercard survey, locals spend as much as $262 in US dollars dining out each month. There are more local food blogs than supermarkets and more than just a few food apps (e.g., Hungrygowhere, BurpplePicky). With almost every other person a foodie, that’s quite a lot for a place less than half the size of Greater London and nearly double in its population density.

It’s not the problem of junk food here. Rather, if the National Nutrition Survey in 2010 is anything to go by, nearly half the nation dines out at their local friendly hawker centre more than four times a week (up from 40% in 2004: National Nutrition Survey by HPB). In addition to the problem of too much salt from eating out, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and vascular illness, the most recent data reveal a disturbing trend of overeating. As many as 6 in 10 locals consume too many calories, leaving them vulnerable to the risk of obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. In reality, stress has a bit of a starring role, while sugar plays a vital supporting role.

We typically respond to a stressful situation at work with cortisol (since we can neither fight our co-workers nor flee from our emails, much as we try to sometimes), which encourages our appetite and desire for high energy foods — simple carbohydrates (find the science explained herehere and here). We often think of these as just sugar and honey. But in reality, they often wear clever disguises from white rice, breads, cake, muffins, cupcakes, doughnuts, and biscuits, to hot and cold desserts. And an overconsumption of these lovely, fragrant, heart-warming energy-dense foods increases the risk of impaired insulin function (read this to understand the link between overeating and diabetes).

And while prolonged exposure to stress leads to chronic inflammation, it should be recognized that sugar also contributes to inflammation. In fact, it is sugar in all its various nefarious disguises which is responsible for populating the blood stream with small, dense LDL cholesterol particles. And it’s these small, dense LDL particles which raise our risk of coronary heart disease (read this for a full review of the factors for cardiovascular disease).

So yes, stress and sugar are the bad guys (here’s an earlier blog entry on thwarting the ill intentions of sugar). But there is a simple solution. It’s called exercise.

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?

Exercising. What’s the fuss all about?

Exercise that doesn't feel like exercise!

Yes, we know. It’s good to be physically active (here’s why, in case you didn’t already know). And yes. We should all be doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. That’s an average of 20 minutes every day.

That’s about the amount of walking we would get from walking to and from the MRT station or bus stop. Especially if you have to change trains at Dhoby Ghaut.

But having a transportation routine that minimises walking might mean that some of us don’t get the minimum physical activity requirements. What’s the alternative? Doing a weekly 75 minutes of cardiovascular activity in which you reach your optimal heart rate for burning calories. Or some combination of both. Walking the park connectors for 20 minutes after dinner 3 times a week and running up enough stairs for a 10 minute work out every other day, would meet said requirement.

But knowing what to do isn’t the issue. The problem is actually doing it.

When we were hunters and gatherers, we probably wouldn’t have had to attend a lunchtime talk on the health benefits of exercise or signed up for free bootcamp and gym classes. We’d get fit simply from planting vegetables, picking up duck eggs, and paddling to fetch food from the sea.

That’s not to suggest that we need to start doing that now. But there is the possibility that we can be physically active without having to “exercise”. It would certainly make these excuses go away: I don’t have time, I don’t have the determination or discipline, I don’t like getting sweaty, Exercise is boring, and I don’t know how to exercise (so says the CDC). Sound familiar?

We are much more likely to prioritize time for something that we’re interested to learn, be it a self-defense skill like judo, fencing, and wushu or a useful skill such as horse riding. More so when it’s a skill that we’ve challenged ourselves to learn (and paid membership fees for) like yoga (here’s a comprehensive listing).

It definitely won’t be boring.

You won’t need willpower to get to class.

You wouldn’t care whether exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, regardless of whether your BMI or cholesterol is puts you in the high risk category or not (as explained here).

And while you’re busy thinking about steps and music in line dancing (various community centres host social events) and swing dancing (swing dance, what’s that?), sweating will probably be the last thing on your mind. You’ll be surprised how much walking is involved in west coast swing (take classes here) and how much core you need to engage for argentine tango (milongas listed here).

Getting active doesn’t require a manual. It involves doing something fun. Like trampolining and sailing.

Of course, it helps to set concrete goals (Oprah has tips) and mobilize your troops (otherwise known as your friends) for social support. It also helps if you’re not also trying to use self-control in other aspects of your life, such as trying not to eat doughnuts (according to research reported in this APS Observer article). With people stuck with the double whammy of lowering dietary intake and increasing physical output, bootcamps and gym classes come with complimentary workout task masters.

But it’s easier when it’s something that you enjoy. Like shopping…for clothes to go with your new hobby.

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