Ways to promote healthy lifestyles at the workplace

Someone in HR usually has the good fortune of having job of promoting a healthy lifestyle to the rest of the office. It may even fall on the shoulders of an interest group or a recreational activities committee. In other organizations, these brave souls have an official title – the workplace health committee.

But whatever their title, they will want to impress upon others the merits of eating more fruits and veggies. They will want to persuade their colleagues to switch from polished to unpolished rice. And they will aim to get everyone to chalk up 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. They will cheer them all to get an annual basic health screen and goad others into the lecture theatre to learn more how they can manage their stress.

There are of course national campaigns with prizes to help these fortunate employees with their cause. And there are resources to fund workplace health endeavors. But the path to slow food and an active lifestyle is often paved with good intentions. With many a detour to the fast food restaurant and a back alley shortcut to chilli crab, Hokkien mee, and char kway teow. So, they could probably always do with more help.

Here are some lessons to be learnt from consumer research:

1. Some things are best seen in black and white
Some messages are best presented in monochrome. A 2015 study found that participants made more rational decisions when information was presented using black-and-white images than colour. In fact, researchers suggest that monochrome could be useful for situations concerning a distant future. Promoting a healthy lifestyle for the benefit of the family or a healthy retirement, may be best made in black-and-white, not in colour.

2. Don’t shortchange your employees when serving healthy food
We’re likely to enjoy the food more if we pay more for it, according to a 2014 study. Customers who participated in the study rated the food to be more enjoyable when they paid $8 for a all-you-can-eat high quality buffet in upstate New York than when they paid $4 for it. Those who paid less were more likely to say that they had overeaten, to feel guilty about the meal, and to say that they liked the meal less and less in the course of the meal. So don’t undercharge your employees for good quality healthy meals at the staff canteen.

3. Help us make good decisions with fewer choices
Having too many choices can lead to poor decision making. A 2015 study shows that participants don’t make optimal choices when they have to consider all 16 options together. Rather, they make better decisions when they use a strategy called sequential tournament, where they pick one of four options, until they make a final choice from the preliminary selections. Giving fewer options (and dietary information) at the canteen can help employees make healthier food choices.

4. Lighting affects our eating experience
We appear to experience emotions with more intensity on sunny days compared to overcast days. That we perceive food to taste more spicy and judge others to be more attractive when these are presented in bright light, are among the findings of this recent study. It seems that emotional messages are best received in bright lighting, whereas rational decisions may be better done with subdued lighting. That means it may be a good idea to turn up the lights for healthy lifestyle posters in the lift and lobby, and turn down the lights at the office canteen.

5. When to use questions and when to use statements?
Participants in a recent study responded more positively to ads with statements when they were in a state of higher excitement, but preferred ads phrased as a question when they were in a lower state of excitement. In the study, respondents were listening to music that was either stimulating or calming. It seems that when we’ve got a lot to process, we prefer to be told what to do; when we’re not so preoccupied, being asked a question will pique our interest. So poster campaigns in a busy lunch canteen will fare better as statements, whereas poster campaigns in a boring corner of the office may be better received as questions?

Just some food for thought.

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.

There’s no sugar-coating it

Food is a national pastime.

We all scream for ice cream!

CNN Travel names chicken rice, char kway teow, wantan mee, chai tow kuay, and chill crab as the top 5 foods locals can’t live without (surprisingly, katong laksa didn’t make it to the top 5; it’s listed at #14). According to a 2012 Mastercard survey, locals spend as much as $262 in US dollars dining out each month. There are more local food blogs than supermarkets and more than just a few food apps (e.g., Hungrygowhere, BurpplePicky). With almost every other person a foodie, that’s quite a lot for a place less than half the size of Greater London and nearly double in its population density.

It’s not the problem of junk food here. Rather, if the National Nutrition Survey in 2010 is anything to go by, nearly half the nation dines out at their local friendly hawker centre more than four times a week (up from 40% in 2004: National Nutrition Survey by HPB). In addition to the problem of too much salt from eating out, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and vascular illness, the most recent data reveal a disturbing trend of overeating. As many as 6 in 10 locals consume too many calories, leaving them vulnerable to the risk of obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. In reality, stress has a bit of a starring role, while sugar plays a vital supporting role.

We typically respond to a stressful situation at work with cortisol (since we can neither fight our co-workers nor flee from our emails, much as we try to sometimes), which encourages our appetite and desire for high energy foods — simple carbohydrates (find the science explained herehere and here). We often think of these as just sugar and honey. But in reality, they often wear clever disguises from white rice, breads, cake, muffins, cupcakes, doughnuts, and biscuits, to hot and cold desserts. And an overconsumption of these lovely, fragrant, heart-warming energy-dense foods increases the risk of impaired insulin function (read this to understand the link between overeating and diabetes).

And while prolonged exposure to stress leads to chronic inflammation, it should be recognized that sugar also contributes to inflammation. In fact, it is sugar in all its various nefarious disguises which is responsible for populating the blood stream with small, dense LDL cholesterol particles. And it’s these small, dense LDL particles which raise our risk of coronary heart disease (read this for a full review of the factors for cardiovascular disease).

So yes, stress and sugar are the bad guys (here’s an earlier blog entry on thwarting the ill intentions of sugar). But there is a simple solution. It’s called exercise.

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?

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

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!

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. 

Confidentiality is key

Young Woman Sitting Looking at Laptop Screen

There is increasing awareness about the need to support the mental wellness of employees at the workplace.

NEA and CPF were reported to be the “…latest to offer counselling services to staff” (Straits Times, 28 Oct 2013). Their efforts to provide their staff with access to paid-by-company counselling services are to be lauded. But as the author of a letter to the forum points out, the telephone as a platform for counselling is far from ideal (“Limitations of telephone counselling”, Straits Times, 29 Oct 2013).

There is a reason why the best practices guides (e.g., Buyer’s Guide by EAP Association, Buyer’s Guide by EASNA, Buyer’s Guide by the UK EAPA) recommend face-to-face counselling as an integral component of a comprehensive employee assistance programmes (EAP). While workplace telephone counselling provided by masters-level mental health professionals has been shown to have some effectiveness, it is noteworthy that telephone counselling was less helpful than face-to-face counselling for individuals experiencing poor psychological wellbeing (read this APA review for details).

There may be relatively less stigma for employees to access telephone counselling services, but “it has serious limitations as a clinical tool, including the absence of the ability to ‘see’ nonverbal cues from a client” (APA Monitor). Counsellors in a face-to-face session, in contrast, have the opportunity to show interest, concern, respect, receptiveness and support through direct eye contact and open body language. Indeed, research indicates that counsellors need to adjust their strategies for establishing rapport for a televideo conferenced counselling session (e.g., appropriate and careful placement of the videocamera, the use of gestures for taking turns to speak, increased use of nonverbal cues such as nodding and smiling).

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are designed to “improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace, through the application of psychological principles, including specialized knowledge and expertise about human behaviour and mental health”. That is to say, EAPs support the mental wellness needs of employees by providing them with access to confidential counselling services, as well as education and awareness activities such as mental wellness talks, all of which are paid for by their employer.

And EAPs can only work if employees know about them. Knowing that one can seek help from a professional mental health professional is essential, if employees are to use EAP and if employers are to benefit from having employees who are more engaged at work.

But there is one thing even more important than telling employees that there is an EAP at work. Knowing that counselling services are completely confidential is the most important aspect of the EAP. Providing employees with assurance about the confidential nature of the counselling service is key to employees using their EAP.

Employees should know that all information shared would only be released with their written consent (see the limits of confidentiality from this APA FAQ). Even the fact that an employee has consulted with EAP should not be disclosed to his or her employer. Responsible employers will want to know how many employees used the service (to ascertain if it is useful) and the employees’ satisfaction with the service (to find out if employees felt counselling was helpful to them), not which employees used the service.

 

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.

Financial stress

A recent Straits Times article (“More finding it hard to pay credit card debt”, 24 Sept 2013) reports a rise in the proportion of individuals who had not made a minimum payment of their credit card bill in two months. Housing loans have also been on a steady incline over the last three years, according to an Economist article (“The perils of a gilded age”, 3 August 2013) which cites figures from the Credit Bureau.

Financial stress impacts workplace productivity: Employees burdened with personal financial problems spend time which could otherwise be better spent on work responsibilities solving these problems. It’s not only a question of 1) assessing one’s financial situation and 2) managing available resources, in order to 3) set goals such as setting side a proportion of income for savings and investment – the three steps outlined in the local online financial education programme at http://www.moneysense.gov.sg.

But it’s also a question of setting aside time and making it a priority as part of self-care. As Irving (2012) points out, engaging in positive financial behaviours contributes to life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. Time spent on financial planning is time well spent!