Learning, it’s no child’s play

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Our children’s learning starts early. These days, preschoolers are not only learning the fundamentals of maths and science, they’re learning to code. Parents who advocate the role of play in children’s development are likely to find themselves a somewhat rare and endangered species. Even though there are numerous benefits to encouraging children to play. Social and communication skills are some good examples.

But let’s not get distracted. Parents want to their kids to do well in school. And we know the home environment does contribute to children’s academic achievements.

It’s also important for parents to have high expectations of their kids.

Only thing is that, well, that might not be entirely true. A study hot off the press finds that unrealistically ambitious aspirations of parents can adversely impact their children’s academic performance. The findings of this 2015 study of 12,000 US school-aged students mirror those from an earlier study conducted on 3,530 school-aged students in Germany. So apparently, unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance“. And parental academic pressure appears to be leading to more and more children and teenagers experiencing chronic stressburnout, and depression.

So, what else are parents to do? Well, we can suggest a few relatively painless ways to boost your child’s performance:

1. Help them develop a homework habit 
A 2015 study finds that school-age students in Spain perform better on a standardized maths test when they complete their homework on their own and when their teachers set homework on a regular basis. In fact, these high achievers only spent 1 to 2 hours a day on their homework.

So, less is more (but only if homework is also a daily habit).

2. Encourage community and sports participation
It’s no surprise that exercise helps children learn better. Children concentrate better when they’re physically active, and their academic performance improves when they play sports. A more recent study finds that children who are lean and active perform better on cognitive tests.

But it may not just be about the physical health benefits of exercise. Even though exercise does help children sleep earlier and get better quality sleep (because tired children stay up late less, which according to a 2015 study, costs teenagers as many as 9.3 GCSE points per hour spent on youtube, TV, and computer games.

It could be that gaining better body awareness somehow helps our brains retain information better. In fact, a recent study finds that dancing not only alleviates depression, stress, fatigue, and headaches, but boosts self-esteem and self-confidence about solving everyday problems among young Swedish teenagers.

But there may be another reason why children involved in extracurricular activities in the community perform better in school. Experts argue that extracurricular opportunities work because they give children a chance to experience “a sense of accomplishing something“.

3. Eat breakfast with your kids
A 2015 study on 5,000 children 9- to 11-year-olds provides unequivocal evidence that healthy breakfasts make a difference to children’s academic performance. Having breakfast was found to be better than not having any. But having a breakfast of diary foods, cereal, fruit, and bread produced better students than a breakfast of empty calories — sweets (candy) and/or crisps (chips). And having fruit and veggies during the day was also associated with better school performance.

4. Spend time with your kids
It’s common sense. But there’s research evidence to back this one up. A 2015 study finds that successful children come from families who recognised their children’s talents early, but also helped to motivate their children to work hard at practising and improving their skills.

Conversely, another recent study finds that children’s mental well-being is associated with time pressures experienced by their parents — children whose parents have difficulties fitting everything they need to be do into their day, are more likely to have mental health concerns.

Spending time with children, especially teenagers, also helps parents understand their children’s daily experiences. As a result, their children have less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to be better psychologically adjusted.

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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.

 

All work and no play makes June very dull

Don't distress. De-stress!

Long-term exposure to work-related stress impacts our mental health. According to a recent report, more young professionals are experiencing burnout (Straits Times, 14 April 2015), while a recent local study reports that as many as 1 in 13 or 14 have depression, if they’re professionals or senior managers, or if they’re from the sales and service industry.

Not exactly a pretty picture. For most of us, it’s a blurry line between work and personal life. But before we roll down the slippery slope of workaholism, there’s a few things we can do to help ourselves. We don’t need to take huge leaps. But we can start instead with small steps:

1. Get inspired to exercise
Exercise is an effective strategy for managing stress. Even a 10-min walk can do wonders for your mood and mental well-being.

  • With the SEA games starting today, it’s a great time to get inspired. Watch the swimming and cycling to get into the mood for a dip in the pool and ride around the park connectors.
  • Get a free workout with HPB’s physical activity programme Sunrise in the City at different locations across the island. Gym classes available include yoga, kickboxing, Zumba, functional and circuit training, and body combat.
  • Take a guided intertidal walk with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to Pulau Hantu on 5 August 2015 (6.30am to noon).
  • Round up your colleagues for a friendly game of badminton at an Singapore Sports Council court ($3.50/hour on weekdays before 6pm).

2. Culture-up for SG50
Research suggests that creative pursuits are another way to beat stress, even if it only involves appreciating cultural activities as part of the audience. It’s a great excuse for some alone (or not-so-alone) time with your loved ones.

  • The Peranakan Musuem features an exhibition on the lives of 50 influential Babas and Nonyas until March 2016.
  • A huge collection of oil paintings telling the story of Singapore and her late leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew are on show at The Crescent (Level 2) at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre until the end of June 2015.
  • Cultural and musical performances, along with kacang putih and ice ball stalls, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on the National Day weekend, 7-8 August 2015.
  • Visit the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at Kent Ridge which features Southeast Asian plants and animals. The Phylogenetic Garden is among the gardens surrounding the museum which is open to the public without an entry ticket to the museum which is open 10am to 7pm.

3. Socialising without food
Spending time with your friends and family without it involving food in Singapore is a tall order. But there are a few things which can bring you and your friends and/or family together:

  • Kranji Countryside Farmers Market just had its quarterly farm festival on 30 and 31 May 2015. But if you missed it, there’s the fortnightly farmer’s market at The Pantry at Loewen Gardens on the first and third Saturday of the month.
  • Original craft and designs are part of the showcase at the Maker Faire which is held in Tampines on the weekend of 11-12 July 2015.
  • Enjoy the music over a beer with friends and family at the Beer Festival from 25 to 28 June 2015.
  • Visit the four new arrivals from Australia at the Zoo and get a 50% discount on a River Safari ticket when you pay for your entry ticket to see the koalas at the Singapore Zoo.

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.

Chew the fact (s)

Back View of Man Running on Stairs
“Chew the fat” is an eatery in the newly hip district, Everton Park. It’s only a 20-min bus ride or 15-min walk from the office. In spite of the lure of a much needed espresso or latte, waffles with maple syrup, traditional ang ku kueh, delectable polish dumplings, and food court prawn mee, it’s much too far in this heat and 84% humidity to walk to for a CBD lunch.

Although these are certainly things which would keep us happy. Social conversation over coffee and cake. A sugar high from ice cream to get us through our post-prandial afternoon lull. A nice walk through the restful Pinnacle courtyard en route to Neil Road. But these aren’t always quite enough to get us through a stressful week at the office. Even though we know the psychological (and physical) benefits of exercise.

We might not be ready for a 50km run for 50 days: But if you’re in the pret-a-ultrathon mode, look here for how to join this SG50 celebration. But for the rest of us trying to get into a fitness regime, here are some new ideas to chew on:

1. Believe in yourself
It’s one thing to know that you should exercise (or start exercising). And it’s another to get started. Especially if you’re self-conscious about your shape or size (read this article). Getting professional help in order to work on issues such as self-esteem, rumination habits, having negative and/or irrational thoughts can do much to help those in such a quandary.

2. Enhance your workout with music
A recent study found that those who listened to music of their choice exercised much harder during a high-intensity work-out than those who had no music to listen to while working out. Put on your exercise shoes and load up your favourite playlist. Music, maestro!

3. Start with small steps
It’s easier when you start with small goals. Instead of aiming to do the whole 5 floors up to your office, you can take the lift up to your office but walk down from your office every day. Or you can get an app (or two) which helps you squeeze in a brief exercise session every day — 5 minutes only. Another prospective study published recently found that those who ran for just 5 to 10 minutes a day were likely to live as long as those who fulfilled the usual 150-min-a-week physical activity requirements. So, exercising for just 5 minutes a day can have huge benefits to your health.

4. Professional counselling
Consider coaching or counselling to help you deal with the stress of trying to get fitter. Weight loss isn’t a walk in the park. It’s often an uphill battle that just gets harder the more we try. And trying to exercise can increase your stress hormones, leaving you feeling stressed about getting fit, says a 2014 study. Ways to manage the stress more effectively can be brought about with one-to-one coaching and through professional counselling sessions.

5. When did you last have fun?
Thinking about a positive exercise experience can be just the thing you need to help you keep at it. A 2014 study found that those who were asked to recall a positive exercise experience were more likely to exercise in the subsequent week than those asked to recall a negative one. Think of a time when you had fun to set yourself up for success (instead of failure).

6. Try paying yourself to exercise
Ever wanted to reward yourself for exercising? Well, there’s an app that does that. This new app PACT pays you to stick to your fitness regime. It’s because we’re motivated by concrete incentives. Try it out!

7. Four wheels good. Two wheels better.
A 2014 study found that those who cycled to work were happier than other commuters. It’s no wonder given the commuting traffic we confront every day. It might be that cyclists have the opportunity to focus on things which provide a therapeutic break from stressful thoughts about work. And being in a green environment makes us feel better. Whatever it is, try cycling to reduce your stress.

8. Hitting the sweet spot
Once you’re having fun, you can always have more fun! Although squeezing in 5 minutes of exercise a day is a great start, you’ll want to do more once you enjoy it. Recent research involving an overwhelming large number of participants through national databases indicates that going beyond the minimum requirement (150 minutes a week of physical activity) has long-term benefits to our physical health. Here’s that research explained.

And think about what that does for your mood and mental well-being! Chew on that (not just the fat)…

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.

Staying off tobacco

Just knowing the health risks of tobacco (including lung cancer, head and neck cancers, and heart disease) and the mental health benefits of quitting tobacco (getting better quality sleep, improved mental health, and reduced stress levels) may not be adequate reasons to motivate smokers to quit. Studies show that campaigns which emphasize the truth about the tobacco industry and the real cost of smoking are more effective in helping people quit.

Social support helps people quit tobacco

Social support helps people quit tobacco

But what else? Here are what the research says:

1. Guidance from a professional coach
Research shows that professional counselling can help smokers successfully quit: A coach or counsellor can help individuals develop a personal stop-smoking plan.

2. Reduce dependence using nicotine medicines 
There are 5 nicotine medicines which are recognised to boost the success of quitting tobacco: gum, patch, lozenge, nasal spray, and inhaler.

3. Going cold turkey isn’t for everyone
Quitting on willpower is the least successful way to quit tobacco. But counselling and nicotine substitutes are not the only available strategies. Exercise reduces the urge to smoke and withdrawal symptoms, while social support via social media is gaining popularity for its efficacy in helping ex-smokers stay tobacco-free. And there are a few more: hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and mindfulness are some of them.

4. Get the right kind of emotional support
Participants in a 2014 study were better at talking to their loved ones about quitting smoking if they had received face-to-face or online training on how to communicate their concern (without nagging or confrontation) than if they received only pamphlets.

5. Don’t be afraid to use your smartphone
A 2014 study showed that constant reminders from a text-messaging service helped people stay off tobacco.

6. Challenge your brain
Engaging in exciting activities (e.g., puzzles, hobbies, games), which challenge the brain, with a loved one can be an effective strategy for reducing nicotine cravings.

7. Use e-cigarettes to boost willpower
E-cigarettes create an inhalable nicotine vapour by heating a liquid nicotine solution. It’s not clear what the long-term effects are, but research shows e-cigarettes to be more effective in helping people successfully quit smoking compared to willpower alone or patches and gum. Recent reports do however caution the use of e-cigarettes (“No conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit: WHO report”, Today online, 27 August 2014).

Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.