Drink up! It’s good for you!

Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need help? Read this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuppa for me, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clothes — The long and short of it all

We already know about the benefits of exercise. Exercise increases life satisfaction, improves mood, and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety (read this for the full story). Blah blah blah…yes, exercise makes us feel better. And it plays an important role in helping us maintain our self-worth (here’s the evidence for that claim).

There are other things which raise self-esteem: positive self-appraisal (what’s that?) and self-awareness (how can I achieve that?). As with exercise, we see what we need to do, but the legs, arms, and mind aren’t particularly motivated to get us there. Gadgets or no gadgets.

There is however a speedier solution to boosting one’s confidence (note: it is of course easy once you know how): It’s about what you wear.

Clothes make the dog!

There is evidence that how we feel affects what we wear. In a 2012 study by Fletcher and Pine, women reported themselves more likely to wear baggy clothing and jeans when experiencing a low mood (e.g., feelings of depression) and more likely to wear their favourite dress when feeling happy.

There’s evidence that what you wear affects how you behave. A study showed that putting on a doctor’s white coat made participants perform better on a cognitive task (here’s that study explained).

And there’s evidence that what you wear affects how others perceive you. A study found that participants rated someone in a tailored suit as more successful and confident than the same person in a off-the-peg version. Findings from yet another study revealed that a subtle change in the length of the skirt — whether it was just above the knee of just below the knee — influenced how study participants viewed the person wearing the clothes. In the condition where the person was introduced as a “senior manager”, participants judged her to be more intelligent, confident, and responsible with the longer than shorter skirt. Turn these findings around, and they actually tell us that we make snap judgements about others (and ourselves) based on what they (or what we) wear.

And a 2013 poll of 100 respondents found that 2 in 5 women believed that wearing red increased their professional confidence. Clearly, we know that clothes do affect how we feel about ourselves, as demonstrated in this guide on How to dress for success by Real Simple (look here for tips on dressing well for men).

So what clothes make us feel better about ourselves? There’s really only one thing to know and that is to wear clothes that fit you! It’s important to put on clothes which fit, not clothes that are in fashion right now. Real Simple has a guide for different body shapes, while BBC programme What Not To Wear offers tips on making the most of our assets. Wearing a pencil skirt that stops exactly at the knee (not an inch above it or an inch below it) or jeans which are bootcut or skinny depending on your body shape is half the battle won.

The other half is what you do with that extra confidence you’ve gained.

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
~Mark Twain

 

Executive coaching is not for life

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

Executive Coaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating to feel better

Research findings are clear: We feel better not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally, when we exercise (read these articles from the American Psychological Association and Harvard Medical School to understand the science behind the claim).

But what we eat may also play a role. Specifically, certain foods can be helpful for enhancing our mood (here’s the rough guide). Here’s what the research says:

oats

1. Chocolate
It’s official. Dark chocolate is good for you. This is not just because it’s been reported widely in the media (e.g., CNN, Science Illustrated, Psypost). But it’s because a 2013 random controlled double-blind study showed that healthy adults given a daily high dose of cocoa polyphenols reported better mood at the end of the month than their peers who were given a placebo.

2. Oats and barley
Apart from the wholegrain benefits of eating complex carbohydrates, oats and barley are also good sources of folate, which is important for producing neurotransmitters which in turn control mood.

3. Lentils and beans
Lentils and beans provide not only dietary fibre and a low-GI (glycaemic index) complex carbohydrate meal option, they are also good sources of folate. This means pinto, borlotti, cannellini, and black beans, as well as chickpeas. Even mung beans are rich in folate (good ol’ tau suan).

4. Leafy greens and avocado
Folate, B6, and B12, are important for the production of neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin) involved in mood regulation. Mangoes, avocado, and asparagus are also good sources of folate. B6 is naturally found in dark leafy greens, papaya, and orange, while eggs, cheese, and fish are good sources of B12. So Popeye was right after all: Spinach is good for you.

5. Tofu, flax seeds, and walnuts
Omega-3 fatty acids are reported to directly affect serotonin regulation (here’s the scientific explanation) and are found to affect mood. Other studies indicate incorporating omega-3 rich foods into one’s diet (typically oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) has a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Flax seeds, walnuts, tofu, and scallops are excellent sources of this highly sought after fatty acid.

Happy Labour Day!

Take your vacation time!

You’re planning to spend your May Day holiday at home on the sofa with the TV. And you just got up a few minutes ago to meet your friends and family for a lazy brunch and are now admiring the herons and boats that don’t belong to you at Keppel Marina.

You’re automatically checking work email for updates while at brunch (your fingers move faster than your brain can say “stop doing that”). And starting to feel cranky (when are my eggs benedict arriving?) and are already looking forward to returning to the sofa to do nothing all afternoon.

If you’re doing all that, instead of posting selfies at some exotic location and creating social envy mayhem on facebook, it probably means that you didn’t quite make it to planning a trip away for this long weekend break.

But it’s not too late. There are still approximately six months left in the year for you to make time for some rest and relaxation. Here are some ideas:

1. May
Blue tiger butterflies congregate in the valley at Datun Mountain in the Yang Ming Shan National Park, Taiwan from April to May. It’s an easy 40 min bus ride from Taipei Main Station (rapid transit) to the park.

2. June
One of the world’s best dive site, Sipadan which is off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, is best visited in the dry season – between April and Nov/Dec. Turtles, fishes, coral, rays and sharks are the reason to go diving there. Visitors can stay at Semporna on the coast. Visitors need to take a 2.5 hour flight from KL to Tawau, and then catch a ride from Tawau to the village. A hundred and twenty divers are allowed each day (no limit on non-diving visitors) at Sipadan which is 40 mins by speed boat.

3. July
Tapirs, among other wildlife including trogons and broadbills, are most easily spotted at mineral licks in the Taman Negara National Park, Pahang, Malaysia during July, the peak of the dry season which lasts from March to October. Travel involves a 2 hour coach ride from the Pekeliling Bus Station in KL to Jerantut, and another 1 to 1.5 hour bus ride to Kuala Tahan, the local village nearest to the park.

4. August
Day lilies bloom and cover the Sixty Stone Mountain in Hualien county, Taiwan from August to September. Express trains take 2 hours to get from Taipei Railway Main Station to Hualien.

5. September
Peak egg laying season is July to October for Green and Hawksbill turtles at Turtle Islands, off the coast of Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. It’s a few hours to fly from the capital KL to Sandakan via Kota Kinabalu in Sarawak.

6. October
It’s not the school holidays so October is a good time for a trip to Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, Malaysia. It is also migratory bird season and Fraser’s Hill has much to offer, from local trogons and broadbills to siamang and gibbons. Visitors can follow a tour or hire a car to get to the bungalows on the hill.

7. November
Migratory season for shore birds fleeing from the harsh winters to the Mai Po Wetlands in Hong Kong starts late October. The journey to the wetlands involves a 1.5 hour MTR ride to Sheung Shui station from Central, a 50 min bus ride to the nearest bus stop, and 20 min walk to the nature reserve.

8. December
The cool and dry season for Hanoi, Vietnam lasts from November to April, making December a relatively cool month to visit Halong Bay. Attractions include pristine beaches and boat tours of picturesque limestone towers which dot the bay.

9. January
It’s getting colder in the northern hemisphere. And the beginning of new year resolutions to exercise and smell the roses more. It’s a splendid time to visit these Unesco sites. The royal palace, Pha Bang, and the 16th century wat in Luang Prabang, Laos is one for the culture vultures. Scholars of Southeast Asian civilisation will want to visit the 8-9 AD temples at Borobodur, Java, Indonesia, as well as the palace in Java’s cultural capital, Yogyakarta.

10. February 
February is the dry season in Khao Yai, the big mountain, in Thailand and a good time to go hiking for gibbons, elephants, and hornbills. It’s 2.5 hours by bus from Mo Chit, the northern bus terminal in Bangkok to Pak Chong, the nearest town to Khao Yai. Gaurs are said to be more easily spotted though in the dry hot season in March to April.

11. March
If you’re waiting till March, you can visit NATAS!

Not to belabour the point, but it’s important to say no to work (APA has some pointers). Everyone needs a holiday to recharge and reap the benefits of exercise and fixing their sleep deficit. And if you haven’t got enough leave, take a short break instead (why? read this article).

So no time like the present. What are you waiting for? Get planning!

Recipe for stress management

Mental wellbeing at the workplace

Corporate programmes which promote workplace wellbeing typically muscle in on environmental and systemic changes. These include providing healthier food options in the staff canteen and at catered office and business events, as well as populating open-plan offices with gifts of apples (and promises about keeping doctors away, all the while keeping an eye on pressing insurance premiums, staff medical bills and days of absenteeism down and propping immune systems and worker productivity up).

Such advocates also typically make persuasive arguments about the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and foods which lower low density cholesterol (LDL) levels (read: foods cooked in low levels of polyunsaturated fat, but let’s not get into that fatty debacle). And promotion of incorporating moderate to vigorous exercise into one’s weekly routine completes the equation in the corporate framework.

But nagging people into a healthy lifestyle clearly has its limits. Diabetes has a one in ten prevalence rate (MOH), while almost one in eleven has a BMI higher than 23 (MOH; see also HPB). That hasn’t changed in recent years: one in ten could be classified as clinically obese in 2011, according to this news report.

We can provide people with lots of information. The right kind of information. The internet and media together with workplace health programmes are saturated with information about how fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and chasing a ball round the field (substitute: swimming pool, garden, park, court, gym class) with other sweaty individuals, are effective ways to lower blood pressure and LDL levels and for normalizing blood glucose levels, thereby squashing the risks of a heart attack, stroke, dementia, and specific cancers. Robust effects exist for both eating and exercise.

We can provide convincing reasons for making a shift to a healthier lifestyle. Rather than just knowing that fruits and veggies are good for you, it could be better to know that increasing one’s intake of peppers, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brinjal, broccoli, kai lan, tau geh, watercress, spinach, bayam, bitter gourd, apples, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, mango, chiku, and bananas cultivate good gut bacteria, the kind that’s associated with healthy metabolism and discourage bad gut bacteria, the kind associated with obesity (and science types interested in the fatty debacle can read this journal article). While live culture yoghurt has probiotics, eating fruits and veggies can put you at least a few steps ahead of the game. There’s also talk of a poo pill (“‘Poo pill’ the new way to better health?“, Today, 8 Jan 2014: A Daily Telegraph article).

But that’s not the one that really speaks to us. It’s the elephant in the room. Our stress levels. We tackle the hotpot of our workplace stress with longer work hours. We add flavour and seasoning to the pressure cooker by saying yes to more jobs, more meetings, more responsibilities. And then we let things simmer. Not surprising that we end up with tenderized employees who holiday with their blackberry (“S’pore travellers can’t do without Internet”, Straits Times, 8 Jan 2014).

Here’s our recipe for keeping stress on the backburner:

– a tbsp active coping behaviours
– a tbsp of assertive communication style
– 150g fruits
– 450g vegetables
– a really small pinch of low-nutrient high-calorie comfort foods
– a liberal seasoning of in-the-office exercises
– a tbsp zest for life (exercise helps; better if you find something you like doing!)
– a string of time out moments to reflect on how stress is affecting you (tips here)
– 3 cups of regular walks and bike rides along park connectors (or any of these)
– 3 cups of rubber band stretching exercises (or get a bike like this)
– (optional: seek professional help when things start to boil over)

Ways to motivate your employees

Ways to motivate your employees

Ways to motivate your employe

A 6 Dec 2013 news article in the Straits Times (“S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“) reports “three in four workers” in Singapore to be disengaged at work. Based on results from a recent Gallup poll, the findings highlight the need to provide workers with recognition for work well done and career advice, among other things (see these five tips from Gallup). And there’s also much to be said for having fair bosses (“Who Goes to Work For Fun?“, New York Times, 11 Dec 2013) and a work culture which encourages employee autonomy (“Fashion own model of work efficiency“, Straits Times, 21 Oct 2013).

We offer a few more ideas for motivating employees at the workplace (some being a bit more unusual than most):

1. Get a coffee machine

You’ve heard the news. Caffeine is good for memory (“Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”, BBC News, 12 Jan 2014). The ability to remember and recall things was superior for after having caffeine. (We might think we would perform better at a memory task if we, habitual coffee drinkers, drink coffee. For example. But that’s not the case because participants in this recent study were given a caffeine pill. So it’s purely the effect of caffeine not our perceptions about the benefits of caffeine which boosted memory abilities.)

2. Decorate the office with a sofa

We know from bitter experience that drinking too much coffee after noon can keep us from falling asleep at night. And there’s research to support this idea (“Late afternoon, early evening caffeine can disrupt sleep at night”, Science Daily, 14 Nov 2013): The study shows that drinking coffee even as early as 6 hours before bedtime lessens sleep duration by an unperceptible extra hour of sleep. A powerful 10 minute snooze could potentially help the genuinely soporific employee continue his or her productive day: But first, one must of course know how to nap.

3. Incorporate green spaces at work

A new study reports better mental wellbeing among those who relocated their homes in a greener urban area (“Green spaces deliver lasting mental health benefits”, Science Daily, 7 Jan 2014). Those rooftop gardens and squares of lush greenery won’t just benefit residents in high-rise flats. They could have benefits for office workers too.

4. Encourage employees to switch off

According to a recent study by Expedia, employees in America, Korea and Japan don’t take full advantage of their personal leave, while an overwhelming majority among employees in Malaysia, Thailand, and India who do take their personal leave, spend a substantial amount of their vacation time checking and responding to work emails. Because making time to destress has positive benefits for our mental wellbeing, it’s helpful to have a work culture where employees can go on vacation without checking their work inbox. Better still, encourage them to aim for a destination (see The Guardian for suggestions) with limited wifi or mobile phone reception!. And not surprisingly, this is already corporate policy at some workplaces: “Companies act to avoid costly burnout” (Straits Times, 9 Dec 2013).

5. Keep meetings to the point

Have employees do less. Gasp. Not more. That’s the current school of thought. It says we should resist adding more things to the To Do list of skilled workers (read this Economist article, “In praise of laziness“, 17 Aug 2013). We could be so much more productive if meetings were facilitated by a moderator mindful of time and the agenda. And if emails were restricted to convey information rather than a day-long ping-pong match which could be boiled down to a 15 minute conversation over coffee or tea. And we could be leading rather productive lives without email ping-pong. It’s old-fashioned, but talking does have its place.

6. Work hard, play hard

While technology allows us to work anywhere, it may have damaging consequences. A recent UK study reported in Daily Science found that work overload was closely related to compulsive use of the internet (and signs that they were experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as isolation), while another recent report (“Smartphones may harm productivity at work, study finds“, Today, 27 Jan 2014) indicates that checking mail after office hours disrupts our ability to attain adequate rest, which in turn affects our performance at work the next working day.

If we had a reason to leave work on time (because we need to get to that social dance event, french grammar class, blues-jazz jam session, wine tasting date), we would probably be more efficient during our work day. If our co-workers were hanging out together for dinner and after-dinner drinks (or dessert), we would have shorter lunches. If our manager or team leader were to be also going to the same gym class or badminton game, we might check facebook less, spend less time planning holidays and shopping online during work hours, and be more punctual at clocking out.

7. Green Fridays

It’s easy for employees to exercise on the way to work in non-tropical climates. Even though we have climate-controlled buildings and the weather’s been impressively cooperative (in the low 20°s Celcius) in the more recent weeks, it’s still not really conducive for a brisk walk to the office. Unless there are shower facilities there. Casual Fridays is far from rampant, and Sweatpants Fridays seems unlikely to take off here (“Working wear on Friday? No sweat, boss!“, Washington Post, 3 Jan 2014). But for those still open to the idea of being healthy at least once a week, Fridays could be the day to have everyone go for a walk after office hours and the day for eating one’s own pack lunch of fruits and vegetables.

recent study shows that corporate wellness programmes help those with a chronic illness, and a lower rate of absenteeism. But having a workplace wellness programme (particularly one that incorporates an employee assistance programme to address employee mental and emotional wellbeing) is only the first step. Cultivating a corporate culture which helps employee engagement benefits the employer and stakeholders in the longer term. 

What counts as a supportive workplace?

Bullying, Harassment

Close to a quarter of workers in Singapore reported themselves to have experienced workplace bullying last year, according to figures from a 2012 JobCentral survey which sampled over 2,200 local respondents.

Going by the www.bullyingstatistics.org definition that workplace bullying involves receiving unreasonable, embarrassing, or intimidating treatment from one or a group of co-workers, manager/supervisor, or employer, it would appear that employee experiences documented in the JobCentral survey—verbal abuse, personal attacks, being ignored—can be deftly grouped as workplace bullying. But there is also the concept that the behaviours are repeated and persistent (HRM Asia, 1 Oct 2013; cf. the definition of bullying in the context of school-age children).

Clearly, a workplace which tolerates bullying is highly unlikely to win the award for most supportive workplace environment. In contrast, having a zero-tolerance policy and a workplace violence prevention policy (here’s a sample policy from SMEToolkit), as well as workplace training programmes for managing aggression (here are some tips from Yahoo! News, 23 May 2013), are signs that your employer is working towards providing a supportive environment. Having clear guidelines and an explicit zero-tolerance policy at the workplace regarding sexual harassment (this article in SimplyHer, March 2011 suggests a plan of action) and online harassment (nobullying.com suggests a firm policy against cyberbullying) are essential components of a supportive workplace.

A supportive environment at the workplace is more than receiving free fruit, having exercise balls instead of chairs, pocket money to buy yoga mats, badminton rackets and shuttlecocks, shower facilities, and a staff canteen ever ready to dish out chor bee (unpolished rice) and whole-grain-beehoon for lunch (though these are nice to have). It’s a social environment in which we’re free to focus on the job at hand without having to worry about psychological cold war at the office and unfair distributions of workload and responsibilities among team players.

And we’re only going to be engaged at work if our work environment is safe. Remind your bosses of that on this International Day of Happiness…in case they forgot.

No time to eat right?

Why not cook your own meals?

Eight meals a week were eaten at a hawker centre, food court, or restaurant in 2010 (figures reported from a HPB survey in this article: ST, 1 Dec 2010), not far away from the 2004 median of 7 meals (more details in a 2004 HPB report). Even those who have fresh produce readily available haven’t got time to make healthy meals, as this report suggests: “Kale, Kale Everywhere, But Only Cheetos To Eat” (Huffington Post, 9 Jan 2014).

There’s research evidence that eating at home is not only a way to eat more healthily—as the findings from a 2012 10-year follow-up study on 1,888 participants from Taiwan indicate (“Eating at home could give you a longer life“, Yahoo! News, 23 May 2012).

But it’s so hard to find time to cook, you say. Actually…slow food need not be slow to cook. The website for the author of the fast recipes Rachel Ray offers a zillion fast recipes. Okay, not a zillion, but there are certainly a lot of things that can be done in no time at all. Here are some more from the foodnetwork and food and wine.

And then, there’s no time to do grocery shopping. NTUC does free deliveries with the OCBC Plus! card, and the delivery charge is only $7 if purchases amount to more than $60. Cold storage and Sheng Siong have online grocery shopping and delivery options. Giant offers free deliveries for purchases above $200 (or $100 if shopping at Sembawang). There’s even wet market e-shopping.

And with supermarkets staying open till 10pm and 11pm (and many NTUCs are open 24 hours), grocery shopping can be a breeze without the crowds obscuring all that produce from your view, grocery carts in the aisle, and queues at the checkout counter. In any case, the speedy option of self-checkout are common at NTUC, Giant and Cold Storage outlets. Apparently quite a few people don’t really like this self-checkout and pack-it-yourself malarkey: But think about all those calories you’d be burning by doing all the packing yourself. And all those plastic bags you’d be saving on with your own grocery bags. Anyway, you can use the force: Delegate away!

Then the problem, you say, all this ang mo chiak is not really you. So cook a batch and freeze it. Take it out in the morning and defrost it in the fridge. By the time you’re home to have dinner, you can zap it in your favourite kitchen appliance. Soups, fried rice and mee goreng, rendangs and stews all survive wonderfully the process of being nuked. Or if you’re into slow food in no time, marinade your chicken or fish fillets in the fridge before you go to work, and watch it cook in the oven when you get back. Pressure cookers and crockpots were invented to make one-dish meals (less washing, hooray!). Let the rice cooker do its thing. Voila! Amazing dinner.

Oh yes, washing the dishes. There’s this invention called the dishwasher. But also you can always fall back on the force: Delegate (the kids will thank you when they’re all grown up later; other grateful recipients of your delicious dinner can be reminded about the calories they will burn from washing up pots and pans).

Have no one to share your amazing cooking with? Invite your friends and extended family over. Posting all your lovely food on facebook regularly should get them coming over in droves and falling over themselves to wash the dishes for you. Emphasizing the healthiness of your meals should scores some points with them (of course, attractive food goes along way). Or you can make your healthful food cute.

The only drawback here is that cleaning up the kitchen surfaces fall squarely on you. But look on the bright side: kitchen cleaning and dish washing (should you have mostly free riders) help you fulfil your weekly 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. And if you can’t delegate, there are ways to do this efficiently.

Such a lot of effort lei, says the small voice in your head. Cooking and thinking up different things to make for dinner does take up brain power. But after doing it a few times, it will become a more automated process. Anyway, it’s good for fending off dementia. And if you’re too tired to do any of the above, it might time to review the stressors in your work and home life.

Why bother? Well, there’s a good reason for getting into cooking. Research suggests that interest in cooking as well as gardening cultivates healthy food habits and food consciousness. Yao et al. (2013) found that those given the recipe for a whole- grain-pasta-and-chicken dish to try at home after sampling it, perceived whole grains more positively than those not offered the same opportunity. A cooking and gardening programme in Los Angeles (LA Sprouts) also resulted in healthier BMI among 10- and 11-year-olds. Similarly, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden project Green Reach produced more food conscious youngsters (Libman, 2007).

Lots of ways to eat right, right?

Take control of your eating

Omega 3 and 6

We just had The Festive Weekend of the year. And it was not a fun time for people who need to watch what they eat.

A practical tip for those with diabetes has been to eat on smaller plates (Mind Your Body, 30 Jan 2014), while a useful guide for those with high cholesterol has been that they should choose foods which are low in saturated fat.

But here are some facts that you may not be aware of.

1. Not all carbohydrates are equal.

It’s always a good idea to fill up on vegetables that are coloured (e.g., broccoli, kai lan, peppers, brinjal, carrots, spinach), and to keep in mind that root vegetables are essentially sources of carbohydrates rather than fibre. But not all carbs are equal. White unpolished rice isn’t particularly diabetes-friendly. But sweet potato and yam have a lower glycaemic index (here’s a chart). And so do soba (buckwheat noodles), beehoon (freshly made rice noodles), steel-cut (Irish) oats, rolled oats, tortillas, lentils, and barley, while russet potatoes have moderate glycaemic index when eaten cold (here’s why).

2. Eat food rich in Omega 3.

Foods with omega 3 are the in thing these days (here’s the science behind it). So it makes sense that you’d want to fill up on oily fish (here’s a list), walnuts, cauliflower, and flax seeds. In fact, there’s evidence that a handful of almonds or walnuts a day decreased the bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) for participants in two separate studies (here’s that data). In comparison, walnuts and brazil nuts have to be eaten in moderation. For a comparison of oils and omega-3 among nuts, check out this table.

3. Don’t blame that bad egg.

The recent advice about eggs has been that what we really need to watch out for is the amount of fat in our food intake, not so much the foods with cholesterol that we eat (here’s why), particularly if our cholesterol levels and triglycerides are in the healthy range. Nevertheless, those of us with elevated cholesterol might want to be careful about eating foods which have relatively higher levels of cholesterol (read this piece of advice and this piece about quail eggs).