5 Places to Visit When You’re Feeling Stressed

5 Places to De-stress in Singapore

It’s finally the holidays! Hooray!

You’ve finally managed to get 5 minutes to yourself. To arrange to catch up with some friends. To space out over lunch with your colleagues. To sleep in on the weekend. To enjoy the commute now that the roads are pleasantly clear, even during peak hours.

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can to reset your balancing act of juggling work and life. And re-charge yourself.

There’s plenty of research about what helps us adapt well in the face of life’s challenges. What helps us bounce back when we experience set-backs, things that cause emotional upheavals, even the minor intrusions onto our otherwise happy demeanor. Factors which help include being able to make realistic plans and carry them out, knowing what your strengths and abilities are, being aware and able to manage your emotions, and having problem solving skills (from The Road to Resilience: APA).

But It also helps if you also make the effort on a regular basis to manage your stress levels. That means spending time in green spaces, getting regular exercise and building physical activity in our routine, spending quality time on strengthening social connections with our families and friends, creating time for relaxation routines (yes, even walking around the neighbourhood counts), and investing in creative pastimes, even if it’s a passive appreciation of culture and natural history.

Here are some ideas to kick start your journey! Not only can you do all of the above if you go with your family and friends, but you’ll be glad you went because these gems won’t be here at for very long:

1. Biddadari
This 93ha leafy ex-cemetery, which currently is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, squirrels, and tembusu trees, will become a housing estate with the the first underground air-conditioned bus interchange on the island in a few years. Visit this forgotten woodland to see rarely sighted birds like the Oriental scops owl, Blue-winged pitta, and Indian cuckoo, as well as regular residents like the Lineated Barbet and the Finlayson or variable squirrel, which can only be found in the area.

Getting there: The forest is next to Mount Vernon. Exit at Woodleigh MRT or take bus number 100, 135, or 155 and stop on Upper Aljunied Road.

2. Bukit Brown
An eclectic and fascinating collection of Chinese graves which include those of well-known figures from the early immigrant local Chinese community is just one feature of this 233ha sprawling cemetery. Take a tour through history at this heritage site (maps available at bukitbrown.org), or enjoy the melodious song of the Straw-headed bulbul and White-rumped sharma and agile antics of the Common tailorbird and White-breasted Kingfisher at this urban oasis (find out more the birds at Bukit Brown here).

Getting there: Bus services 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, and 855 will get you to Adam Road. Head for Sime Road and the main entrance is after Lor Halwa. If you’re driving there, Lor Halwa can also be accessed through University Road (off Dunearn Road), which continues as Kheam Hock Road.

3. Pulau Ubin
Current plans to protect the diverse wildlife and eroding shoreline mean that this island should stay a haven for flora and fauna for a while. But the ever-changing landscape in Singapore (including her smaller islands) also serves as a reminder that it’s good to enjoy the kampung feeling at this small island while it’s here.

Seagrasses, coral, and the Horseshoe crab and Fiddler crab are among the natives to be found among the mangrove trees during low tide at Chek Jawa. Visit House No. 1 just inside the entrance to Chek Jawa for a good view of the only remaining fireplace in Singapore. And you might just find a toothless wild boar trying to make friends with your food near Chek Jawa.

Getting there: Take a bum boat from Changi Jetty for $2.50 (each way) and hire a bicycle when you get to the island.

4. Kampung Lor Buangkok
Current renovations are under way for some of the houses at the last kampung on the island. Visit this 1.22ha village to relive a forgotten era with their free-range chickens (although you can also spend all day peering at the freely roaming and magnificent jungle fowl at Pasir Ris Park if you’re than keen on chickens) and idle your afternoon away on a tree swing.

Getting there: The kampung is at 7 Lor Buangkok. Bus services 70, 103, and 854 take you to Yio Chu Kang Road. Stop at the bus stop near Church of St Vincent de Paul and cross the overhead bridge to the kampung.

5. Lim Chu Kang and Kranji farms
The lease for farming land in Lim Chu Kang will expire in a few years’ time. So that means, that the Lim Chu Kang farms may not be there for very long. But you can visit existing ones that have invested in sustainable farming along the Kranji Countryside. Their regular farmer’s market offers an enticing smorgasbord of locally made jams, chutneys, nut butters, sambals, and herb plants and seeds. The trees in the area are also home to industrious yellow-headed Baya weavers during the nesting season, while the otters and kingfishers at Sungei Buloh are only a stone’s throw away in the same neighbourhood.

Getting there: Bus service 975 will leave you at Lim Chu Kang Road. The farms at Neo Tiew Crescent are a bright and sunny 30min walk away. The nature reserve is best accessed on bus service 925 which stops on Neo Tiew Crescent, soon after the bridge on Kranji Way.

So, get out and enjoy the fresh air!

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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.

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!

When should you tell your colleague to “take a holiday”?

workplace stress

Going by the elevated stress levels reported by employees in Singapore (read our earlier post) and lack of job satisfaction bemoaned by many in the local workplace (discussed in an earlier post too), it would appear that for some employees, the answer may be now!

According to a recent workplace survey, as many as 94% of bosses held the view that employees shouldnot bring work home. It doesn’t add up. Or bosses say “have work-life balance”. But they hand their employees more work than that which can be completed within working hours. Clearly, there are going to be instances where bosses say one thing and do another. It also doesn’t help when bosses continue working outside office hours. 

Numerous studies have highlighted the effects of chronic stress on employees’ emotional and physical well-being. Prolonged exposure to stress weakens the immune system, causing employees to be absent from work and less productive when working with a stuffy head and sniffy nose at work (read this Fortune article). Burnout leads to higher staff turnover and elevated business costs. More crucially, it may mean losing valuable employees. It’s the reason why some companies have started to insist on employees taking their annual leave.  

Depression is explained as a condition in which an individual experiences “a persistent and pervasive low mood that is not affected by external circumstances”, with the individual losing interest in activities which once interested them. And it may escape the notice of most bosses, but the fact is that employees who are experiencing burnout, may be actually experiencing symptoms of depression (here’s an explanation of the two terms). 

But what can you do about it?

Here are some steps you can take:

1. Find out if you and/or your colleagues are experiencing burnout.
Complete this self-assessment questionnaire.

2. Recognise signs and symptoms of depression.
Mayo Clinic has a fact sheet on burnout. Understand that someone with depression cannot “cheer up” and “get over it“. It’s not just about feeling “sad“. One in 17 has depression in Singapore (find out more). 

3. Raise awareness about burnout at your workplace.
This article on Understanding and Avoiding Burnout has tips for managers. 

4. Provide a supportive environment for preventing burnout at your workplace.
Here’s a systematic list of things you and your organization can do to help.

5. Reach out to your colleagues.
Find the right words, but don’t forget to take care of your own emotional well-being.

World Mental Health Day. It’s two months and 19 days away. What are you doing on World Mental Health Day?

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.

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. 

Who needs sleep anyway?

There’s been quite a bit of coverage on work-life imbalance recently, (“Long hours the norm in finance”, Straits Times, 28 August 2013; “Long work hours entrenched in Asia banks”, CNBC, 28 August 2013; “Money never stops for Singapore finance workers who regularly work over-time”, efinancial Careers SG, 28 August 2013).

Given this and extant survey findings on the typical work week — for everyone, not just those in finance — it’s really not surprising that high stress and overwork are well-articulated key phrases often heard among the incoherent mumbling of local employees. Work demands have been identified as key stressors for locals across industry, from nursing, teaching, engineering and law, to banking, finance, insurance and IT.

Systemic interventions which provide evidence-based psychological training at the workplace have been found to be helpful to both employee and supervisor. So are online educational resources. Effective coping strategies (“8 ways to achieve better work-life balance, Forbes, 18 April 2013) are key in securing positive outcomes in terms of employee mental wellbeing.

But one has to ask the question, is it really all worth it, the 50+ hour work week? And how long can one sustain that lifestyle? Who needs sleep anyway? At least someone thinks that we should “say ‘no’ to extreme work culture” (Opinion CNN, 26 August 2013).

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More life, less work

It appears that Singaporeans desire a slower pace of life (Straits Times, “Majority of Singaporeans want a slower pace of life”, 26 August 2013).

That Singaporeans want a more comfortable pace of life, less stress, and more family time (Today, “Singaporeans want ‘compassionate meritocracy’”, 26 August 2013) is a repeal not infrequently heard from other sources such as job surveys. A poll by JobCentral in 2012 found more than 60% of Singapore workers complaining about heavy workload and work stress. And it’s a repeating motif in the other job surveys conducted on Singapore respondents.

Accepting that 12- to 15-hour work weeks and working weekends are the expected work conditions for employees in industries with great performance pressure and elevated levels of stress, and that 40- to 50-hour or over 50-hour work weeks can be considered the norm (see a 2012 Hudson report), is not likely to spell for positive mental outcomes. It does not come as a surprise then to learn from the same report that the burnout rate in Singapore is somewhat higher than that in the region. Clearly there are practical ways to cope with stress. We’re well aware that eating healthily, having a physically active life, taking time out to relax, and investing in social and emotional support are all effective strategies to cope with stress.

But that’s easier said that done. Knowing that we should eat well and exercise is one thing. Doing it after the emotional drama which just unfolded in the last few continguous long shifts at work, isn’t quite so easy. When your body wants to recover by just hibernating the entire weekend away, who’s got the energy to cook a nice wholesome meal with buckwheat noodles in miso and then bounce down the park connector on in-line skates or bike, let alone walk around the neighbourhood playground with your exuberantly buoyant kids. Braving the crowd at the supermarket on the weekend or marching up to a lazy Saturday brunch takes energy which somehow you won’t have. Sign up for yoga class? Who would entertain such a ludicrous idea.

These are indeed adaptive coping strategies which we could put in place if we wanted to. But we could be sabotaging ourselves with maladaptive coping strategies at work. Training interventions aimed at teaching employees effective communication and to discern adaptive from maladaptive coping strategies for the workplace, could be helpful for employees experiencing performance pressure at the workplace.

And that’s all fine when life’s rosy at the home front. But coping with work demands and sandwich-generation caregiving responsibilities, as well as the unexpected twists and turns that appear on life’s meandering footpath, can make things a bit challenging even for emotionally resilient individuals. Seeking advice from someone trained to help manage personal crises could help bridge that little step away from burnout and towards recovery.

Balancing work and life on a tightrope

Work-life harmony is currently a national priority.

The Singapore Tripartite Forum deems employees able to combine work responsibilities and personal-family needs likely to be more engaged and productive at work. Businesses are being encouraged to provide for work-life balance among employees.

And the policy emphasis on work-life harmony is supported by the MoM Work-Life Grant. This grant, previously known as Work-Life Works! or WoW! (no, not World of Warcraft), supports EAP counselling and hotline services as part of Employee Support Schemes. The 2005 Work Life Harmony Report  provides findings and recommendations for employers on using work-life strategies to optimise business performance, while Tripartite Guidelines on Best Work-Life Practices lists mental wellness talks/workshops and confidential professional counselling among employee support schemes for enhancing work productivity. But what’s like on the ground?

According to a research report by Azzone and colleagues in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 90% of Fortune 500 companies implemented EAP services for their employees in 2002, while 40% of US employees in the private sector had access to EAP services in subsequent years (Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, & McCann, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

In Singapore, comprehensive EAPs are a relatively new development, even though corporate wellness programmes have been in place since the 1980s. As many as 26% of private companies in Singapore with at least 50 employees had a comprehensive workplace health promotion programme in 1998 (Chew, Cheah, & Koh, 2002). The findings published in the Singapore Medical Journal were based on a survey which had a 49.5% response rate from 4,479 companies. A 2006 National Workplace Health Promotion Survey, cited in a recent book edited by Kirsten and Karch (2012), Global Perspectives in Workplace Health Promotion, puts this number at 58.7%.

With the recent mushrooming of local EAP providers, hopefully it won’t be too long before the untangling of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and employee assistance payments can begin.