Money, happiness, and your mental wellbeing

Riches help us stay healthy, but apparently, money doesn’t make us happier.

As far back as 2004, researchers already concluded that life experiences are more likely to make us feel happy than material possessions. Despite that, like the participants of a 2014 study, we still feel that our money is better spent on material purchases than on life experiences.

In fact, some of us may not benefit from spending on a life experience at all. According to another study, if we’re buying an iPhone, a Balenciaga clutch and a Bulova watch to fit in with our peers, we’re not likely to feel happier after spending our hard-earned savings on a safari in Botswana or a nice dinner out with friends at a new gastropub like Timbre+. In fact, happiness won’t be the outcome for as many as a third of us, whether the purchase is something material or a life experience.

So, since getting the latest GoPro, admiring your newest acquisition at the Affordable Art Fair, eating your heart out at the current food fest Gourmet Japan, and taking your little ones to KidZania on Sentosa Island, may not improve your wellbeing, what could you be doing instead?

1. Know the value of your time
Happiness is linked to how much we value our time. A 2016 study found that happiness ratings were higher for people who chose to prioritise their time (e.g., a shorter commute or shorter working hours) over salary. It pays dividends to pursue work-life balance, it seems. But not necessarily in dollars and cents.

2. Practise gratitude
Results of a recent study show that those who express gratitude tend to place less emphasis on the contribution of material gains to their sense of satisfaction in life. To a smaller extent, people who experience positive emotions are also less likely to view material possessions as the ticket to happiness. So, even if shiny new things make you happy, you can elevate your wellbeing by being grateful. (And gratitude not only improves mood and sleep quality, but it’s associated with less inflammation and lowered risk for cardiac events).

3. Develop your sense of compassion
current study based at the Malaysia campus of The University of Nottingham is investigating the impact of loving-kindness meditation on individuals’ wellbeing and happiness. But earlier work has actually already established a number of benefits of practising mindfulness which focuses our attention on being kind and showing empathy to others. This sort of mindfulness practice encourages positive emotions and helps with anxiety and chronic pain.

4. Plan your travel and social events in advance
It seems that our experience of happiness — in the form of pleasantness and excitement — endures while we anticipate the enjoyment of a life experience. But this wellbeing doesn’t apply as well to material purchases, says a recent study in Psychological Science. In short, lengthening that anticipatory period might heighten our excitement and ultimately bring us more joy. Might we be even happier if our life experience was free (e.g., a picnic at Marina Barrage or a free concert).

5. Get involved with your community
Another way which raises our “psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing” involves voluntary work, while being employed on a full-time or part-time job. A 2015 study reports that voluntary work leads to greater satisfaction with work-life balance and lower stress levels.

6. Consider life’s adversities
It’s possible, it seems, to have too much of a good thing. Having an abundance of experience and being well-travelled, we can be underwhelmed by a visit to a “pleasant but ordinary” destination. But contemplating past adversities and considering life’s uncertainties, according to this 2015 study, can help us enjoy the small things in life.

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Are you a collector or a hoarder?

A collection of lego

After a trip to the supermarket, we usually have a pile of plastic bags, which we’ll stash somewhere safe in the kitchen. We probably have fewer plastic bags these days because we’re into recycling and using our own cloth or non-woven bags. And you can save 10 cents by bringing your own bag. But we typically get a bag when we buy something. And we’ll stack these neatly in a pile somewhere at home. And that something that we’ve bought often comes in a box, which we’ll keep because it’ll come in useful some day.

Or perhaps you’re the sort that just throws everything away and recycles all the paper and cardboard products as soon as you get home to unwrap your new toy. Because you’re afraid of accumulating too much stuff and of becoming a hoarder. Because you know someone who is one.

It seems hard to imagine how one can keep so many things that the home becomes too cluttered to move or clean, even to the extent that a clean-up team from the Housing Development Board and National Environment Agency is required. But it’s a problem that’s much more common than you may think. As many as 1 in 50 show hoarding behaviours in Singapore, according to a 2015 study. And it’s a problem not simply solved with a clean up. Those who hoard have “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them” (Mayo Clinic). As such, they usually need professional help.

Although hoarding was previously categorized as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD, experts now recognize hoarding to be distinct from OCD (see also the DSM-V).

A 2012 study found that the brains of those who hoard were overstimulated when tasked with deciding whether to discard or keep junk mail that was addressed to them. In contrast, the same brain area was inactive for the same task involving junk mail addressed to a third party — a research lab. These findings speak volumes about the crippling indecision that those who hoard face when forced to clean up their homes.

Those who compulsively hoard tend to place much greater value on things that they keep and they place value on many more things that others would. And their anxiety which stems from trying to make discard-or-keep decisions, is a huge obstacle to gaining control over their cluttered homes. It’s no surprise that hoarding is without exception “always accompanied by anxiety“.

Perhaps we’re not quite there yet. We can claim to be collectors of plastic bags and cardboard boxes because they’re still sitting neatly in a drawer and a cupboard. But it may be useful to acknowledge when our collecting behaviours are turning into hoarding ones (refer to this Fact Sheet for signs and symptoms). Ask yourself these questions:

Do you feel overwhelmed by the clutter in your home?
Is the clutter preventing you from using your furniture or appliances?
Do you avoid having visitors so that they won’t see the clutter?

If yes, it may be time for you or your loved one to seek help. Professional help in the form of intensive cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT, with a therapist who has experience with hoarding behaviours, has been shown to be effective in helping hoarders.

Here are some resources for helping those who hoard to help themselves: Start by setting realistic and small goals (e.g., aim to clear one shelf). It’s never too late: Here are some top tips to help contain the clutter.

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)…

That’s what friends are for

Living in a dense city apparently is bad for our health, according to news reports (“Mental health experts say city dwellers more prone to stress-related disorders“, Channel News Asia, 24 March 2014). It could be our competitive work ethic. It could be that our corporate culture lacks emphasis on work-life balance.

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

Whatever the reason, we typically experience an elevated amount of stress. Even though some report that we’re happy (read this report), there are indications that many aren’t happy at work (read this Straits Times report and this Today article).

And we should know the negative impact stress has on our mental and physical health. Because Mediacorp’s Channel 5 programme, Body and Soul, channelled all its energies into explaining mental health in its 8th episode (“Behind the curtain of depression” on 1st April 2014 9pm).

Despite this education campaign about mental health, the public’s awareness and understanding about depression will likely remain poor. And relatively few who need support for mental health problems seek professional help (here’s why). Those are the same reasons why there is a need to document Singaporeans’ understanding of mental health and the factors which motivate them to seek professional help (see these Today published on 19th and 20th March 2014).

But awareness campaigns work best through word of mouth. Friends these days are useful for providing entertainment through their lifehacks and buzzfeed posts, and for creating social envy among friends through the multitude of food pictures they post on their facebook. But they sometimes also provide emotional support to friends in need.

So on this World Suicide Prevention Day, it’s important that friends have the facts:

What Is Depression?

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor.

How can I help a loved one who is depressed?

If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.

To help your friend or relative

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
  • Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
  • Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
  • Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
  • Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
  • Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.

Taken from the US NIMH Depression publication; the PDF is available here.

And friends don’t keep good information to themselves. They will want to spread the word.

Learning to say no takes practice

yes - notepad & pen

According to a recent Expedia survey, “happiness is a beach vacation” (it says a lot about our work-life balance). But we can’t all hop on a plane and ferry ourselves to the gili islands the minute we’re feeling stressed at work.

Even though stress affects our immune system, life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing, and increases our risk for stroke and heart attacks. Recent research indicates that stress disrupts the body’s ability to store and use fat cells for those with an unhealthy body mass index. Basically, stress ain’t good.

This makes it all the more important that we have effective strategies for dealing with stress, such as exercise and relaxation techniques. Regular dosage of our preferred heart-raising activity – yoga, running, mixed martial arts – encourages muscle relaxation and circulation of those feel good hormones. Mindfulness techniques which focus on breathing and raise our awareness about our emotional states allow us to process our thoughts and feelings, helping us to relax and sleep.

Employees in high stress jobs also benefit when they seek out emotional support from friends and family. It’s the likely reason why employees with friends at work are those who say they enjoy their work. Conversely, not having social support increases the risk for depression.

But situations which stress us out at the workplace are often not fixable right there on the spot with the usual techniques for managing stress. Imagine taking your yoga mat and boxing gloves into a staff meeting. Now there’s a thought. No, seriously, exercise is not a panacea for solving workplace conflict or addressing a loss of control over the distribution of workload or the outcome of our job.

Here are some other things to consider:

The good, the bad, and the silent treatment
There’s no question that workplace harrassment puts us at risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A zero-tolerance policy and workplace violence prevention policy are good to have (read our earlier post on “what counts as a supportive workplace?“).

But it’s even more important that we recognize the signs of being bullied (cyber or otherwise). Recognizing that the silent treatment, sarcastic criticism, and sabotage are signs of passive-aggressive behaviours is as important as knowing what to do with this “sugar-coated hosility” when we encounter it. We would rather be bullied than ignored at work.

But do something about it, we should. We may not have the option of totally cutting the passive-aggressive co-worker out of our lives, but we can put limits on our interactions with them and acknowledge our own feelings about their behaviours (and a number of other things to address the situation).

Poor control over work distribution and outcome
Maybe work isn’t your happy place. There is a lack of fairness at the workplace. Your contributions go unrecognized. The workload is unevenly distributed. Your feedback gets listened to but not actually heard. Micromanagement is the new black. All of the above?!

  • You may want to consider delegating some of your work. Apparently we don’t have superpowers and need to give away our cape. Not an innate skill. We need to practice. Try these tips out. Here’s a how-to.
  • You will need to practice saying no (here are some more tips), to use the right body language, and to express yourself clearly (here’s a fact sheet with practical advice).
  • You can provide feedback about your workplace culture at your annual review. It takes time for bosses to value productivity, not time spent at the office.

When you’ve done all these, you can sit back, put your feet up, and take a look at these life hacks to make most of your time and these tips for using Google to make your life a little bit less effortful.

Maybe work isn’t your happy place

Maybe work isn't your happy place

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

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

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

Here are 10 ways line managers can help:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bosses, take note!

Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane

Today online (18 June 2014) reports that “almost half of Singaporeans are dissatisfied with their jobs”. And The Straits Times (7 May 2014) said not long ago that one in five feels very stressed, which is consistent with the 2013 Gallup survey which reported that only 10% of employees polled felt passionate and motivated about their work. There’s a very slim possibility that they’re related. Just a thought

That means lots of people could be experiencing burnout at work (check if you’re experiencing the symptoms of burnout here).

Between having too much on your plate at work and having too much to do at home, it can be hard work trying to find the time to de-stress.

So we put together a wish list to help you join the “thriving at work” crowd:

1. Get really active!
It’s easy to think, “what’s the point in finding time to exercise? I’m already so emotionally drained. Exercising is just going to make me feel more exhausted”.

But exercise actually helps your muscle relax. More importantly, exercise helps to regulate levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in your brain, helping you experience more positive emotions (Craft & Perner, 2004).

Not surprisingly, exercise lowers stress levels, improves life satisfaction, psychological mood, and mental wellbeing (Atlantis, Chow, Kirby, & Singh, 2004Coulson & McKenna, 2008Daley & Parfitt, 2011Parks & Steelman, 2008), and effectively reduces anxiety, depression, and absenteeism (Bhui, Dinos, Stansfeld, & White, 2008).

Time to join that in-house workplace fitness programme! But if that’s not your cup of tea, there are many other exercise options. And for those with strong views about the unnecessary evils of exercise, consider some fun alternatives!

2. Sleep is crucial
Sleep is probably the top thing on your list of things to do. But strangely enough, getting good quality sleep isn’t always quite the walk in the park you thought it’d be.

But getting good quality REM and deep sleep means a more efficient brain the next day, with positive outcomes for learning and memory (here’s the science stuff).

Sleep (particularly when used in combination with #1) helps us maintain our psychological mood and mental wellbeing. Not convinced? Try these for bedtime reading: NIHAPAHBR.

And if you drank too much coffee, try fitting in a nap. Even better, cultivate some good sleep habits.

3. Learn to switch off
Get into the habit of not checking your mobile devices on the weekend. Plan your holidays in places with limited wifi or dodgy mobile phone reception! The reasons are pretty straight forward (read this article: Straits Times, 9 Dec 2013).

4. Rethink your communication style
Assertive communication is key to managing your stress.
“Being assertive shows that you respect yourself because you’re willing to stand up for your interests and express your thoughts and feelings. It also demonstrates that you’re aware of the rights of others and are willing to work on resolving conflicts.” – Mayo Clinic. Here are some tips on how to communicate effectively.

5. Seek out a workplace mentor
It’s also possible that you’d fare better at work if your line manager gave you recognition for work well done. And if you had a mentor to help you improve your job performance and provide career guidance.

6. Support a collaborative work environment
You’d be also much more motivated about work if you had rapport and a relationship built on trust with your line manager. Having friends at the workplace and your team is a key driver (MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training). But it works both ways. Successful managers need to also care about their employees: They need to practice active listening, focus on their employees’ strengths, and provide constructive feedback to their subordinates.

7. Get some professional help
Getting insight into solutions to a personal or workplace problem with a professional counsellor through the employee assistance programme at your workplace could help you move forward. You don’t need to have a crisis to seek help. Counselling can be a useful resource for identifying your source of stress and prioritizing potential solutions for addressing the problem (here are some tips).

Managers could benefit from executive coaching to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues. Studies indicate that a cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach improves mental resilience, psychological wellbeing, and stress levels.

8. Don’t forget to fit in some time for relaxation!
Relaxation techniques are effective for managing stress because they help bring your central nervous system back to equilibrium.

“When stressors throw your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of the stress response.”http://www.helpguide.org

Mindfulness is all the buzz right now. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to relaxation. Business Insider has some unique ideas, though you may prefer a more conventional approach such as gardeningYoga and tai chi may suit those wanting to raise their heart rate at the same time, while having someone hit all your acupressure points certainly appeals to many.

The key to happiness

the key to happinessBeing happy is all the rage these days. It’s been reported with much fanfare that Singapore is the 30th happiest nation in the UN’s World Happiness ReportGallup wellbeing scores for local respondents, which have achieved a delirious increase from 46% to 70% between 2011 and 2012, have also received much media attention. Local newspapers are replete with tips for being happy (“You’re happy if you think you are”, Mind Your Body, 31 Oct 2013).

But as pointed out in various local news (e.g., “A measure of happiness in Singapore”, Asia News Network, 13 Oct 2013), the UN happiness index is about overall life satisfaction, whereas Gallup wellbeing scores are self-reported ratings for questions such as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”, “Did you feel well-rested yesterday?”, and “Did you learn something interesting yesterday?” on a scale of 1 to 10. Crucially, the UN happiness index comprises among other things gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, years of healthy life expectancy, and perceptions of corruption (“Singapore the happiest nation in Asia: UN study”, My Paper, 11 Sept 2013). In light of that, achieving a ranking at the top 20th percentile is then perhaps not wholly remarkable.

Interestingly, the 1,000 local respondents in the 2011 Gallup survey included residents living in private housing, whereas the equivalent number of local respondents in the subsequent annual survey appeared to have no representation from this group, which make up 12% of the general population. It’s also noteworthy that the face-to-face surveys were conducted between 1st September and 30th October in the preceding year of 2011, but between 22nd December 2012 and 28th March 2013 for the 2012 survey.

But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we understand the factors which impact our mental wellbeing, and that we try out various ways to improve our mental wellbeing.

Here’s FOUR ideas to chew on:

  1. Nothing like exercise

    Findings from a cross-cultural epidemiological study of 17, 246 young adults (Grant, Wardle, & Steptoe, 2009) indicate positive correlations between life satisfaction and physical exercise (as well as eating fruit!). Although their findings appeared to suggest a mediating role for physical health, it is clear from those and other findings that exercise improves mental wellbeing. A recent study (Maher et al., 2013) with 253 participants found that young adults reported greater life satisfaction on days when they engaged in physical activity compared to other days, even after controlling for other factors such as gender, BMI, daily fatigue). So if that’s not persuasive enough, this blog on why we need exercise from The Dr Oz Show might help convince you to get up and out to the park.

  2. Assess your mental wellbeing

    Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and feelings of sadness from time to time. But perhaps you or someone you’re concerned about is experiencing more stress than usual and showing signs of burnout at their workplace or as a caregiver. There’s no better motivation to engage in good self-care than when you’re convinced that you need it! This anonymous self-assessment tool will help you assess your mental wellbeing, while a burnout questionnaire can be insightful for not only employees, but caregivers. Once you’ve assessed your stress levels, you might be more willing to give the other things below a go!

  3. Get some zzzs

    Sleep is highly underrated when we’re young. Okay, we’re not that young anymore but nonetheless sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting enough rest is essential to not only our problem solving abilities, but also closely related to our mood and mental wellbeing. A study (Dinges et al., 1997) found that an accumulated sleep debt equivalent to 33% less sleep than normal negatively affected psychomotor vigilance and working memory performance. Moreover, the removal of sleep deprivation produced a significant improvement in participants’ mood. And what’s more. The link between sleep problems and mood disorders including depression has also been well established in the literature (Breslau et al., 1996; Neckelmann et al., 2007; Weissman et al., 1997). So it’s important to get some good quality REM (and not the Shiny Happy People kind)!

  4. Relaxation is key

    Tips for managing stress always seem to revolve around a million things which should make us feel good. Tips often include things like having a bubble bath, taking the dog for a walk at Pasir Ris Eco Green, having brunch at Selfish Gene Cafe with friends, peering at migratory birds at Sungei Buloh, and spending the afternoon painting at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, as well as paying someone to press your head and shoulders, crack your knuckles, pull your toes, and fold your knee across your body. Other strategies include being thankful and forgiving, being encouraging to someone else, and being aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. The underlying notion behind most of these strategies is that chronic stress is harmful to our heath. It’s not only responsible for poor immune functioning, but has long-lasting negative consequences for our cognitive abilities. Prolonged exposure to stress damages our hippocampus – a brain structure responsible for consolidating short-term memory to long-term memory (Sapolsky, Krey, & McEwen, 1986). So, looking after yourself is the key to good mental wellbeing (and happiness). But more importantly, along with lowering one’s risk of vascular diseases, it plays a key role in protecting against dementia.

Friends make you happy

It’s official. Social interactions in person make you happy. Not facebook.

And it’s not something that’s been made up, just to support the notion that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. There’s research to support this idea! A recent Economist article, “facebook’s bad for you” (August 2013) highlights these findings: Participants in a study who reported high facebook usage were more likely to report poorer life satisfaction, in comparison to those who were infrequent facebook users. In the same study, Kross and colleagues also reported that engaging in face to face social interactions with other people was related to improved mood.

It would be interesting if future work were to uncover that frequent facebook users who tailor their news feed for their wall and/or limit their online social network to friends they regularly meet, report more positive outcomes in terms of mood and psychological well-being compared to frequent facebook users who are indiscriminate news feed consumers and whose online social network includes people they’ve not said two sentences to. It’s lovely that your friends are out there enjoying their strawberry shortcake, sunny Greece, their new washing machine, and home-made bento lunch of grilled fish marinaded in miso and crunchy asparagus, but sometimes it’s better to talk to your friends about it over a cup of tea or coffee!