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.

Advertisements

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.

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

 

Things to do in the June holidays

We’re a tuition nation. It’s no secret. We know the truth — in order to succeed in life, we need tuition. We’re not Finland after all.

Boy Photographing Man

It can’t be, of course, that life lessons need to be learnt through failure (don’t believe what you read in this article or this Harvard Business Review blog entry). That our ability to stand knocks and all the falling down we’re going to do later in life, is partly determined by our exposure to failure earlier in life. That resilience comes from experiencing difficulties. That the road to resilience is paved with stones and potholes left there to trip us up (and hopefully help us get up again).

Certainly not. Which is why this school holiday, it’s important for our children to get their pocket money worth of tuition and enrichment classes. And definitely not spend their holiday time going to any of the following places. Although there’s no doubt that there’s no good learning to be had here (never mind what you’re told at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, 30 May to 4 June 2014):

1. Social emotional learning lessons can be sourced pretty much (surprisingly) everywhere, from the dinner table to the shopping mall. Interactions with family members should provide invaluable lessons on social skills and interpersonal interactions. But ambitious parents may want to aim higher by taking their brood to the cinema for the likes of Rio 2, MuppetsMost Wanted and Frozen. Domesticated types can stay home with the DVD version of Croods, Shrek 3, Toy Story 3, and Despicable Me 2 (for a lesson plan, look here).

2. Lessons on business management come at a fairly reasonable fee. Young (social or otherwise) entrepreneurs can aim to clear up their wardrobe clutter in favour of accumulating wealth at local flea markets such as For Flea Sake and Zouk Flea & Easy. Creative sorts can hawk their wares at more creative arenas like Maad and Public Garden (see also Handmade Movement SG).

3. A holistic approach to language enrichment through interactive games, plays, movie screenings for children and their families can be found at Children’s Season (2014) organised by the Museum Roundtable (including the Old Ford Factory, Reflections at Bukit Chandu, and Singapore Philatelic Museum).

4. Creative brains will delight at the Ace! Festival and SAM, through art at Sungei Buloh, and classical concerts at the Symphony Lake, Singapore Botanic Gardens.

5. The Night and River Safari at the Singapore Zoo, the Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, Hort Park, the butterfly park at Alexandra Hospital, and the butterfly and cactus garden at Changi Airport all offer enrichment programmes for a solid introduction to biology.

6. The Kranji Countryside Association (including Bollywood Veggies) offers geography enrichment classes, providing children with the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge and insight into the eco-tourism industry.

7. The Singapore Science Centre offers further biology enrichment classes on Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) an explorer who conducted field expeditions in the Malay Archipelago. And no lesson will be complete without the uphill task of following the Wallace trail at Dairy Farm, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

8. The Singapore Science Centre also promises chemistry and physics lessons for young minds. But free cooking demonstrations at Tangs can double as basic chemistry classes.

9. Asian and local history enrichment lessons come at affordable prices at the National Museum, Asian Civilisation Museum, the Museum of Toys.

10. Useful information for children’s new hobbies (up to the ages of 85 years and older) can be found at the Library. The self-help approach to language enrichment can be attained here and here.

 

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What’s the deal with mental wellbeing?

Mental wellbeing, what is it? It is, according to the World Health Organization, “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. But what’s the deal with mental wellbeing? Well, here are some facts about mental wellbeing:

  1. Employee wellbeing is lower than that of the general population.

    A media report last year (“Mental well-being of working adults 13% lower than general population”, Asiaone, 3 Aug 2012) revealed that mental wellbeing among employees in Singapore was 13% lower than that of the general population. Results from the HPB survey comprising a 1,000 respondent sample showed that working adults were more likely to experience higher levels of stress than non-working adults.

  2. Is employee wellbeing just a “nice-to-have”?

    It’s been established in research that employees’ mental wellbeing is indicative of their engagement and work performance. This view is supported by findings that “employees who are dissatisfied and unhappy are also more likely to be disengaged, absent without valid reasons, cynical, non-cooperative and more likely to engage in counter-productive behaviour” (“The importance of employee well-being”, Business Times, 25 Sep 2013).

  3. Mental wellbeing constructs include psychological resilience, social-emotional intelligence and cognitive capacity

    The definition of mental wellbeing proposed by the local authority on health and wellness, Health Promotion Board, comprises psychological constructs which include self-esteemsocial intelligence, psychological resilienceemotional intelligence, and cognitive efficacy. Positive outcomes such as life satisfaction are closely associated with higher scores on measures of these constructs. As such, it’s worth knowing how to improve one’s self-esteem, social and emotional intelligence, resilience, and cognitive competencies.

  • Some self-esteem is desirable

    Correlational evidence indicate that self-esteem, based on self-report measures, is positively associated with mental wellbeing. That is, having low self-esteem likely reflects poorer life satisfaction and mental wellbeing. However, other findings also indicate that it may be important to not view self-esteem as a goal but rather a by-product of psychological wellbeing. As noted in a Harvard Mental Health Letter, it may be also important to examine implicit self-esteem, rather rely on an explicit measure of self-esteem such as self-report. Another way to think about this is that it’s important to develop self-esteem, but it’s also critical that self-esteem arises from positive reinforcement which is provided to reward real improvements in work competence and/or academic performance. This Psychology Today article, “Parenting: The Sad Misuse of Self-esteem” provides useful tips for parents. There are also strategies to help those with low self-esteem: This November 2013 press release by the Association of Psychological Science suggests that touch may be one such useful strategy.

  • Social intelligence is the ability to navigate social interactions

    The ability to thrive in the social world depends on our ability to understand and interpret social situations and act appropriately. In keeping with in this textbook definition of social intelligence, our understanding and ability to manage complex social interactions is what helps us manage at the workplace and at home. Psychology Today provides tips for developing social intelligence, while social intelligence can be observed to have business applications, as this article in the Bangkok Post business section suggests. But the concept of social intelligence does overlap with that of emotional intelligence, so read on!

  • Emotional intelligence is rooted in the ability to perceive and manage one’s or other people’s emotions

    The authors of emotional intelligence propose that people with high emotional intelligence are those who are able to solve problems relating to emotions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). One such example cited in Mayer’s clarification on what emotional intelligence is (and is not) in Psychology Today, is the ability to accurately identify people’s facial emotion. A consequence of having emotional intelligence is the capacity to respond appropriately to perceived emotions, thus facilitating one’s ability to manage emotions in oneself and others. More recent empirical research supports the importance of emotional intelligence to successful relationships at home and at the workplace (Salovey & Grewal, 2005). Programmes to build up emotional intelligence are not only catching on at schools, a topic which a New York Times article documents and a Huffington Post report explores, but they are also being implemented at the workplace. Reassuringly, cognitive-behavioural approaches to training up our emotional intelligence are shown to be effective (“Can you really improve your emotional intelligence?”, Harvard Business Review, 29 May 2013). But first, perhaps you might want to find out what your EQ is? Try this quiz!

  • Psychological resilience is key

    Resilience is key to boosting mental wellbeing. While self-esteem and cognitive abilities likely reflect our capacity to realize our own potential, and social and emotional intelligence help us live productively and fruitfully, resilience plays an important role in our ability to cope with the daily stressors of our lives. The public broadcasting service (US) has an excellent definition of resilience, while the Huffington Post article “Hope and Survival: The Power of Psychological Resilience” offers illuminating illustrations. And there are many ways to build resilience: Psychology Today describes the 10 traits of emotionally resilient people; this magazine Experience Life! includes self-care as a useful tip; a Harvard Business Review mentions the role of optimism in building resilience; Forbes offers a change in perspective; and Life argues for teachable moments from the difficulties we face in life. We can’t possibly learn to get up when we haven’t had the chance to fall down.

  • How fluid is our cognitive capacity?

    Having good mental wellbeing also means that we’re able to analyze problems, find solutions, make decisions, and do ordinary things like remember, read, and recall things. Research shows that these abilities can be improved with training, and this applies to even school-age children. Lucky for us, other studies have demonstrated that playing video games can enhance our cognitive kills. Playing Starcraft helped young adults with no gaming experience improve their cognitive flexibility, while practice at a divided-attention task (with a car-driving video game interface) helped older adults improve not only their scores for tasks of attention skills but also their performance at working memory tasks (“Put away the knitting”, The Economist, 7 Sept 2013). Of course, it should be remembered that this is only an effective strategy when it’s novel to us. Challenging our brains to learn something cognitively demanding improves not only working memory but episodic memory – our ability to remember new things (Park & Lodi-Smith, Drew et al., 2013). This recent study shows that, in contrast, there are no benefits to staying in our comfort zone (“Mentally challenging activities improve memory as baby boomers age”, UT Dallas,  22 Oct 12). Caffeine is another way to boost our problem-solving and thinking abilities in the short-term (and the short-term can be quite useful!). But of course, too much caffeine has consequences on our ability to make good judgements about our and other people’s emotions, as well as wise decisions in difficult social situations (“Caffeine: The silent killer of emotional intelligence”, Forbes, 21 August 2012). Can’t have too much of a good thing!