29 ways to destress

There are only 3 days left before we can enjoy a day of rest (and possibly too much murukku). It’s only 68 days before the long weekend during Christmas this year and the ensuing three working days before the New Year, when everyone is at their desk but no one wants to do any work. Another 42 days to filing corporate annual tax returns. And another 26 days before children are free to roam the shopping malls downtown and prowl the science centre, zoo, and bird park.

In order that we don’t burn ourselves out to survive another fast-paced year in the corporate jungle, we can innoculate ourselves against stress. Here’s some things to try:

Coffee and Cookie Beneath Large Cork Noteboard

29. Do you precrastinate?
We can feel stressed out by our “to do” list, which more often than not gets longer as the day yawns on. Sometimes we get so stressed that the last thing that’s added to our list, is also the first thing we tackle, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else. Choosing to reply to a new email (precrastination) gets it off our list but may be counterproductive. It could be more efficient to let emails accumulate and reply to all of them at the end of the day.

 Don't disturb

28. Go away!
A 2014 study argues that multiple interruptions reduce quality of work produced. It may be a good idea to put your phone on “do not disturb” (only important calls will get through) and stop your email client from running in the background.

breakfast

27. Indulge in a short break at the office
A 2014 study found that employees who took breaks while at work reported more satisfaction at work. But the study also showed that these were usually employees who had a physical job, or those who had jobs with a lot of face-to-face interactions, and needed to decompress with “alone time”. But breaks don’t have to be “workplace internet leisure browsing“; they can be time well-spent filling up at the water cooler or having breakfast!

Facebook

26. Facebook at the office
According to this 2014 study, taking a 5-minute break to browse non-work-related websites helps younger employees stay focused at work. Using company internet to surf Facebook for 5 minutes was a more effective break than a similar duration spent comparing online insurance policies, doing nothing, or not taking a break. But it’s not for those aged 30 and up…

Have a cuppa

25. Smartphone breaks (and tea breaks) can be helpful 
We’re better at paying attention to a task which requires constant vigilance (think air traffic controllers) when we’re allowed brief breaks. A 2014 study observed that employees, who spent time playing a game, checking Facebook, or posting on Twitter while at work, had higher levels of mental well-being at the end of the day. The microbreaks help by allowing us to destress in between tasks. Though those in organizations where smartphones are not allowed, will probably need to do it the old-fashioned way — talking to co-workers in person or taking a tea break in another part of the building.

Video Game Competition

24. When TV is bad for you…
Apparently it’s hard to relax by watching TV or playing computer or video games. A recent study suggests that when we use TV and gaming as a distraction to escape more pressing tasks, we fail to be destressed from watching TV or from playing a computer or video game. Instead, we feel guilty for procrastinating on the pressing tasks. That’s not to say TV is not an effective way to destress. It is, but only if we’re not using it as a means to escape from a problem. If you’re not escaping, then go ahead…watch TV (skip to #13 and #14).

Walking the dog

23. If you must procrastinate…
Then choose something that you have to do. If you’re at home, that could be the laundry, dishes, ironing, walking the dog, or dinner prep. If you’re at the office, that could be clearing out your inbox, tidying up your desk, backing up your data, or sorting out your filing. At least you’ll feel accomplished at the end of the day.

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22. Get those creative juices flowing
A recent study has found that employees with creative pursuits outside work are more productive than their peers who don’t have such interests. Even being an audience member at a dance or musical performance or a visitor to an art gallery or museum exhibition can bestow benefits which include improved mental wellbeing and mood. It may be that creative hobbies help us relax during our downtime, which in turn boosts our effectiveness when we’re on the job in the work week.

Woman listening to music.

21. Enjoy your time at work and at home
Although not all tasks are suited to being accompanied by music, music can be helpful in boosting productivity. And putting up the bass can make one feel empowered. So, put on those headphones and turn up the bass before that all-important client meeting, business negociation, or employee performance review.

oregon coast

20. Channel your spending towards friends and family
Spending on things which provide us opportunities for social interactions (e.g., meals, theatre shows) makes us happy. Relative to spending on things which are only appreciated by us. Research also shows that we’re happier when we spend on others rather than ourselves. And we’re most happy about charity donations when these further a cause supported by friends or family. What all this tells us is that we value social experiences. By that reasoning, we should expect to be ecstatic about making a home-made picnic for friends and family at Marina Barrage. Or a potluck get-together with all your office BFFs.

working like a dog

19. The magic of delegation
Some of the things that we do don’t need to be done by us. But giving responsibilities away takes practice. It helps if we also prepare by finding out ahead of time whom we can give the tasks away to. Here are some tips and a how-to guide.

yes - notepad & pen

18. Give it away, give it away now
There’s a difference between something which is important but not urgent, and something which is urgent but not important. It’s tough deciding which to do first. Here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do.

List of things to do

17. Say no (or else…)
Much easier said that done. But since we don’t have superpowers, we need to know what we do want to do and don’t want to do. It’s not just about finding ways to do things more efficiently (though that helps). We can do things which fit into the time available. Here’s how to go about doing it and a useful fact sheet. If not, you can appoint someone to remind you to say no.

Don't fill your diary with unimportant things to do

16. Be assertive, not passive-aggressive
Part of “learning to say no” is learning to be assertive. Being assertive means saying what your needs and feelings are, with the right body language. This helps you manage your stress, particularly if we have difficulty turning down more work responsibilities. And prevent you from “vaguebooking” and “posting statuses for attention” for the next two hours, when you should be working!

Low angle view of a young woman playing basketball

15. Look into ways to improve yourself
Key competencies for employees in today’s workplace include awareness of one’s emotions, ability to manage one’s emotions, ability to motivate oneself, empathy, and the ability to manage relationships with others. You can’t change others; you can only change yourself. It’s an important part of stress management. Find out about yourself here.

Find the silver lining

14. Laugh it off
Laughter alleviates stress and protects against heart disease (read this article). It’s not just common sense. Laughter is the best medicine: Patients were found to cope better when their long-term chronic illnesses were explained with cartoons. Seeing the funny side of things helps us cope when life gets stressful (here’s the science behind it). Now you have an excuse to read Sherman’s lagoon. Or view some self-deprecating thoughts.

BFFs

13. Have a good cry (and a friend to hold your hand)

Some argue that crying has a stress-reducing effect, but it appears that the benefits of a good cry may depend on who’s doing the crying and who they’re with at the time of their crying. Findings from a 2008 study suggests that having emotional support in the form of friends and family produces positive outcomes from the crying episode. So, station your social support network on your sofa, get ready the tissues, and turn on the K-drama channel…

Laughter is the best medicine

12. Watch a funny movie
A recent study found that watching films with a stressful scene (heart surgery in the film Vertical Limit) makes our heart beat faster. And not in a good way. In contrast, watching a funny movie reduces anxiety levels. A 1991 study showed that we’re better at solving a problem when we’re experiencing a positive emotion than a negative one. It appears that we are more apt to think of possible solutions when we’re feeling happy.

Anticipating is just as good

11. Ready, steady, laugh!
In fact, just knowing that we’re about to laugh relieves stress. Anticipating a funny movie lowered stress hormones (cortisol) and two other mood-regulating hormones (adrenalin and a dopamine-related brain chemical). Amazing. Time to self-medicate with Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me 2!

Education

10. Spend time on your financial health
When we have money problems at home, we spend time at work solving these problems or worrying about them. All this worrying can lead us to destressing in less than healthy ways. So it pays to keep tabs on your spending, saving, and investing (here are some tips for getting started).

Boy Photographing Man

9. Spend time with your kids
Toddler tantrums and preschool meltdowns are unlikely to be your idea of a restful weekend. Odd as it may sound, children can behave in much more predictable ways when they spend more time with their parents. And if parents engage in warm and consistent parenting, focusing on rewarding desirable behaviour and understanding their young children’s needs and feelings.

Frustrated Mother and Daughter

8. Spend time with your older kids too
Respectful communication is easier when you spend time doing day-to-day things with your teenagers. You may want to try a problem-solving approach when addressing a testy topic. Or assess the various sources of stress that your children are facing before tackling disagreeable topics.

DJ with Gear

7. Defend your ears
A study which found that elevated traffic noise produced higher blood pressure and heart rate, and higher levels of stress hormone, also showed that even low-level noise elicited a stress response, resulting in reduced motivation. Aside from sleep disturbances which in turn affect our ability to cope with stress, traffic noise is also thought to contribute to stress-related health problems such as stroke and heart disease. There are solutions being proposed in dense cities, but ear plugs are a good short-term solution in the meantime.

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6. Greener is better
The participants of a large scale study reported better mental wellbeing as soon as they moved to a greener neighbourhood and this improvement was sustained for as long as 3 years after the move. In another study, residents in a neighbourhood with more trees and vegetation had fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Remarkable.

mid section view of a woman cutting vegetables

5. Popeye was right
Investing in a plant-based diet, as well as physical activity as part of one’s daily routine, a strong social support network, and a purpose-driven life, is one of the secrets to getting older with good mental and physical health.

Tall Green Tree

4. Increase your sunshine vitamin
Nurses were more alert and experienced improved mood when they spent more time with daylight than artificial light (read about the study here). Blue light, which is more available from the morning sun than evening sun, regulates our sleep patterns, which in turn affects our ability to pay attention and solve problems during our working hours. Besides that, sunlight also provides us with vitamin D, which boosts your immune system and facilitates calcium absorption. Time to get make hay while the sun shines!

Woman Stretching in Bed with a Man Sleeping Beside Her

3. Get some zzz!
Whether it’s from disrupted sleep or a lack of sleep, poor quality sleep compromises our ability to remember things and impacts our mood. Studies also show that sleep deprivation puts adolescents at risk of depression and children at risk of obesity. The less we sleep, the faster we age. And here’s the really bad news: lack of sleep makes us crave junk food! Sleep is definitely a must-have.

Head to Head

2. Mindfulness
Studies show that spending a small amount of time a day focusing on breathing helps to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, alleviating stress and reduces burnout. Other benefits include improvements in other domains such as attentiondecision-makingimmune health, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness is not for everyone so similar techniques including yoga and tai chi are other alternatives. Yoga has been shown to improve brain function and psychological mood, lessen anxiety, lower inflammation, and alleviate stress. Relaxation is the cornerstone in managing stress.

Group of People Playing Volleyball on the Beach

1. Keep exercising!
Being physically active means having better physical wellbeing, brain function, and memory capacity. Exercise is not only effective in treating depression but prevents the onset of depression and reduces anxiety levels. Long-term physical activity has anti-aging properties, while exercise has been shown to suppress chronic inflammation. No pain, no gain.

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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. 

Managing your family’s finances

While it is widely acknowledged that personal financial problems can be a major source of stress to employees, the provision of financial literacy education at the workplace is typically an area overlooked in corporate wellness programmes.

Concern about personal financial problems explains not only 50% of overall stress levels reported by employees (Bailey, Woodiel, Turner, & Young, 1998), stress from personal financial problems also results in decreased employee productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism. As Garman, Leech, and Grable (1996) suggest, employees may take time out from their workday to deal with personal financial issues, and employ strategies for coping with stress (e.g., smoking) have impact their physical and mental health, and in turn, their job performance. Other findings indicate the prevalence of poor financial behaviours among office workers to be relatively high (Joo & Grable, 2011).

Despite this, financial literacy education has yet to be integrated into local corporate wellness programmes which focus typically on healthy lifestyles. Healthier food (Straits Times, 10 Sept 2013) and exercising at the work station (Straits Times, 16 Sept 2013) are all the rage at the moment. While advice about planning and managing family resources may not be readily available at the workplace, independent financial advice is available at blogs like Dollars & Sense, and financial calculators at Money Sense SG can be useful for sorting out a household budget. And in this day and age, iphone and android apps for managing your money even take the stress out of keeping track of your spending.

With the appreciating dollar, it’s never too late to start making some good financial decisions!

Why exercise works

We know the health benefits of physical activity. Better BMI, lower levels of LDL and higher levels of HDL, improved blood pressure and heart rate, more efficient cardio functioning, lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. In addition, there are psychological benefits from exercising. It’s not only responsible for positive outcomes such as lower levels of stress and better life satisfaction in the general population, it’s also been shown to be effective in helping to improve psychological mood and mental wellbeing among those with depression (Ströhle, [2009] offers a comprehensive literature review on the subject).

And we know the health benefits of eating healthy. Health magazines and newspaper articles extol the virtues of making healthier eating choices, while there’s plenty of research evidence that increasing one’s daily intake of multigrains and/or greens plays a protective role against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity.

But knowing and doing are two different things. Perhaps it might be helpful to understand why exercise and healthy eating achieves these things. For one thing, it appears that exercise helps the body process fat more efficiently. A recent news article, “Altered states” (Economist, July 2013) highlights the finding that fats cells of people who exercise behave differently from those of people who exercise rarely (Ronn et al., 2013). For another, increased intake of greens appears to increase gut bacteria associated with healthy metabolism and decrease gut bacteria associated with obesity. The recent news article, “Wider understanding” (Economist, September 2014) explains that a high glycaemic diet impairs insulin functioning, unlike a low glycaemic diet (driven by the intake of multigrains) which in turn is protective against obesity.

But knowing the health benefits of exercise and healthy eating is half the equation: you still have to get out there and do it!

Can’t get enough of coffee

There’s yet another place in town for the coffee connoisseur. Along with the established Highlander Coffee at Kampong Bahru, 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru, Papa Palheta at Tyrwhitt Road and Loysel’s Toy at Kampong Bugis by the Kallang Basin, coffee beans and brunch are on offer at Common Man Coffee Roasters on Martin Road. There’s also terribly good coffee at The Plain Cafe, and don’t get me started on Vietnamese drip coffee.

It’s certainly the answer to a productive day at work. Too much coffee though, might result in difficulties deciding which things on a long to-do list to actually do, a propensity to enthusiastically vacuum all carpet surfaces and wash dishes that don’t need washing till the wee hours, an uncanny ability to wax lyrical about just about anything, and in general, behaviour not unbecoming of the squirrel in Ice Age. Of course, perhaps this doesn’t happen to everyone.

But nonetheless, it’s of interest to know if all this coffee is actually good for us. A literature review in 2003 by Nawrot and colleauges indicates that moderate caffeine intake up to 400mg a day is not associated with increased health risks including osteoporosis and cancer, although recommendations also include limiting caffeine intake to under 300mg for women. These findings are reiterated in a subsequent review of epidemiological research. The authors of this 2006 review, Higdon and Frei, also document an association between cardiovascular disease risks and coffee consumption.

A recent summary of epidemiological studies and meta-analysis by Butt and Sultan further clarifies that caffeine consumption raises serum cholesterol. As such, moderating one’s caffeine intake has been suggested for individuals with hypertension, as well as children and older adults. In fact, this recent 2011 literature review suggests an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and the risk of some cancers or Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s assuming of course that one drinks coffee or tea in its purest form. Adding sugar and condensed milk to coffee or tea of course may undo the health benefits that caffeine is said to provide.

Interestingly, a recent study also reveals — in contrast to the USDA figures which puts caffeine in an espresso at about 77mg — that espressos on the Gold Coast in Australia had on average 106mg of caffeine. A fifth of the 97 espressos sampled in this 2007 study by Desbrow and colleagues had at least 120mg of caffeine. To consider the thought that the kopi o kosong gao that you’ve been overdosing on recently has much, much less caffeine than some of these espressos perhaps belongs in the category of unicorns, leprechauns and mermaids. 

More importantly, copious amounts of caffeine has deleterious effects on productivity. In a 2010 study by Rosekind and colleagues, employees reporting insomnia or insufficient sleep were found to be less productive than controls. Annual loss in fatigue-related productivity was estimated at US$1967 per employee. This is not surprising given that lack of sleep negatively impacts our capacity to learn and remember things.

The cognitive benefits are illustrated in Harvard Medical School educational videos about why sleep matters. Poor sleep which is linked to not only increased hunger and appetite and greater food consumption but also anxiety and depression — read this Mental Health Foundation (UK) report on why sleep matters — can have a profound effect on work performance.

Perhaps after you read this Huffington Post article (5 May 2013) on the 5 Things You Should Know About Sleep Health in the Workplace, you might want to switch over to light oolong. How about some 包種茶?

Bosses play key role in staff’s mental wellness

Voices | Today, 28 August 2013
bosses play key role in staff's mental wellness Read on >>

Green is good

The reasons why a recycle-resuse-reduce policy at the workplace is good for the environment are plain to see. But there are other reasons why green is good!

  • Take time to smell the flowers
    Apart from the physical health benefits of physical activity and interacting socially with your friends on a walk in a park, there are psychological benefits from taking time to experience nature.
  • Eat a bowl of tea
    Drinking green tea has been found to be associated with lower risks of breast cancer recurrence (though the jury is still out on whether the benefits of green tea consumption extends to lowering the risk of breast cancer incidence), according to a recent meta-analysis (Ogunleye et al., 2010).
  • Eat enough fruit and veg
    Fruit and vegetable consumption has been reliably associated with lower risks of cancer, with fruits being particularly protective for head-neck and esophagus cancers, and both playing a protective role for cancers involving the pancreatic, stomach, colorectal, bladder, cervix, ovarian, endometrium, and breast (Block et al., 1991), although a more recent meta-analysis indicates that moderate rather than high consumption of fruit and vegetables is adequate for lowering cancer risk (Key, 2011).
    In contrast, each additional portion of fruit and vegetables consumed a day is associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease by at least 4% (Dauchet et al., 2006; WHO, 2004), while eating 3 or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily is linked to a lower risk of stroke (He et al., 2006). At the same time, it is thought that eating fruits and vegetables which contain vitamin C, potassium, folate, and the all-important dietary fibre, have positive health benefits which dietary flavonoid supplements do not provide (Egert and Rimbach, 2011).

Healthy eating at the workplace

The vast majority of research on the efficacy of workplace interventions focus on the role of exercise and physical activity. Indeed, many studies show that educating employees about the mental, social, and physical health benefits of exercise leads to an increase in physical activity.

Implementing worksite exercise programmes which can range from recommending 1,000 steps a day to providing in-house aerobic and strength training during protected time over an extended period improves employees’ health: physical health benefits are better body mass index or BMI, blood pressure (BP), HDL cholesterol, body fat proportion, and waist circumference, while mental health benefits include improved psychological mood and wellbeing. These workplace interventions are influential in achieving greater productivity as employees report better job satisfaction and spend fewer days absent from work due to ill health.

In contrast, studies on healthy eating workplace interventions show more mixed results. The health benefits of eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables are well established for community samples. But compared to the benefits from workplace physical activity interventions, programmes which focus on healthy eating tend to achieve less dramatic results. A review by Anderson and colleagues (2009) indicates small though significant reductions in weight and improvements in BMI for 6 and 9 randomized controlled studies respectively. In another review, Mhurchu and colleagues (2010) suggest that changing the environment (e.g., providing healthy choices in the canteen), as well as educating employees about the benefits of healthy eating, does bring about dietary changes. Furthermore, few studies measure objective outcomes such as BMI or corporate outcomes such as absenteeism.

This may be because interventions which focus primarily on changing eating patterns are not as effective as those which increase physical activity and encourage healthy eating. Alternatively, other factors may be at play. A randomized controlled study by Barrington and colleagues (2012) shows that even at baseline (before any workplace intervention takes place), workers who report higher levels of stress show fewer healthy behaviours — a tendency to eat while doing other activities and less leisure-time exercise. Moreover, those unaware of preoccupied eating also eat fewer fruits and vegetables and more fast food.

Workplace interventions may need to consider the impact of stress levels and take steps to counter its effects on eating and exercise behaviours among employees. While a holistic approach which tackles food choices, physical activity, and stress management is commendable, it may also be important to provide employees with effective strategies for managing stress. A recent study showed that social support was not helpful for improving BMI, even though there was a positive correlation between workplace social support and physical activity/fruit-vegetable intake (Tamers et al., 2011). Instead, interventions which specifically target how employees manage their stress may be the way to go.

Increasing physical activity at the workplace

Physical activity not only helps improve cardiovascular health but has important implications for psychosocial health. A meta-analysis of intervention studies including 8 randomized controlled trials reveals that physical activity is reliably associated with better quality of life and emotional wellbeing (Brown, Gilson, Burton, & Brown, 2011).

Promoting messages about the benefits of physical activity at the workplace is one way to increase physical activity among employees. Implementing organizational-level policy change such as free membership to fitness clubs and in-house exercise programmes during protected time is another. But not all workplace interventions are created equal. Some interventions can be more effective than others, while retaining a relatively cost-efficient status.

Here are 8 things to know about effective interventions.

  1. Measure objective health measures
    Educating employees about the benefits of increasing their levels of physical activity may be effective, but these benefits may not be observed in self-report measures of activity level. Using a randomized controlled matched-worksite design, McEachan et al. (2011) compared employees educated on the benefits of physical activity with controls without access to an equivalent intervention. In this study of 1025 respondents, employees who received the intervention were not reporting more physical activity after 9 months than controls, but they had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and a lower resting heart rate. Objective health measures are useful indicators of programme effectiveness.

  2. Emphasize the socioemotional benefits of physical activity
    Promoting the mental health, social, and physical health benefits of physical activity may be more effective than emphasizing only physical health benefits alone. Moreover, promoting each type of benefit at one time may be more effective than educating employees about all three types of benefits altogether. Because it is easier to absorb new information in smaller chunks, promoting mental health benefits separately from physical health benefits may prove to be an effective strategy for increasing physical activity among employees. The workplace intervention in McEachan and colleagues’s (2011) study promoted each category of benefits to employees in different months.

  3. Use a variey of communication channels
    Using a combination of different channels to communicate the benefits of physical activity may also be more effective than relying primarily on email. The workplace programme which reduced systolic blood pressure and resting heart rate in the McEachan et al. (2011) study distributed the benefits of physical activity over several months in the form of posters, leaflets, a management support letter, a knowledge quiz, an email reminder, a newsletter, as well as a physical activity team challenge.

  4. Tailor your programme to the target audience
    Giving employees a pedometer, in addition to information about the benefits of walking and stair-use, increases walking behaviour compared to controls Aittasalo et al. (2012). At the same time, adults with more years of education are more likely to increase their step count with a pedometer. Pedometer awareness has also been associated with greater pedometer use (Craig et al., 2006; Eakin et al., 2007). An intervention involving pedometers can therefore be an cost-efficient strategy for employees with high levels of education. On the other hand, the benefits of giving employees a pedometer may be optimized by impressing upon employees, who have varying levels of education, the benefits of walking and launching a campaign to raise their awareness about pedometers.

  5. Identify factors associated with increased physical activity  
    Common sense dictates that a programme targeted to increase physical activity alone will be not be effective in raising the health status of employees unless it is combined with a campaign which encourages healthy eating. However, it is also important to focus on aspects of healthy eating found to significantly contribute to healthy behaviour. A study of 573 employees in sedentary occupations showed that encouraging employees to log 10,000 steps daily was more effective in reducing waist circumference among those who ate at least two servings of fruit a day (Freak-Poli et al., 2011).

  6. Use facilities accessible to all employees
    Encouraging employees to use the stairs in place of lifts (elevators) increases physical activity at the workplace. In a study of 160 office workers, employees who used the stairs for 10 minutes three times a week over 10 weeks had improved aerobic fitness compared to controls (Andersen et al., 2013). Benefits extended to improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure for the stair-use group over controls, among those with poor fitness at baseline.

  7. Find the right place to motivate employees
    It’s easy to say “take the stairs”. It’s much harder to get everyone to actually take the stairs. Although the physical health benefits of using the stairs over the lift are well established, few studies focus on the effectiveness of campaigns which encourage stair-use. In a study involving two worksites with 500 and 1200 employees and 4 and 5 floors respectively, Eves and colleagues (2013) found that combining a stairwell message such as “stair climbing always burns calories” with an arrow pointing to the stair riser, with posters carrying information about the benefits of stair climbing (and calories consumed by stair use) to be more effective than posters alone, at increasing stair use. Not only were the stairs used more frequently (as clocked by infrared technology) but employees exposed to posters and stairwell messages were more informed about calorie information associated with stair use.

Workout at the office

You’ve already tried to reach your weekly 150 minute moderate exercise quota from ironing your children’s uniforms and rushing to get your washing in before the rains get to it. You’ve tested your family’s patience for long-tailed macaques at nature reserves and squirrels at Sungei Buloh, exhausted all the shopping malls, and walked around the Botanical Gardens, flower domes at Gardens by the Bay, the Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari, and Jurong Birk Park several times over.

Punggol’s waterways are nice but far away. You need things which don’t require traveling or the uncumbersome task of packing food and water for the family.

So here are some things which you can do at the office:

But perhaps you can work a bit harder…

  • Try a new lunch place that’s 20 min away
  • Use a restroom on a different floor
  • Walk to the coffee machine while your desktop boots up
  • Do a hamstrings-quads-triceps stretch in the lift
  • Attempt some pushups while the photocopier warms up
  • Fill up at the water cooler at least three times a day
  • Chat to keep postprandial nap desires at bay
  • Water your plants sparingly (yes, another restroom visit)
  • Rearrange your arch-lever files in different themes
  • Place your dustbin far away—walk over to place each paper you toss, but miss, in the bin

If that’s too tame, you can venture beyond the usual…

  • Try an egg-spoon race at the office with chocolate eggs for a less sticky end to an enticing affair
  • Practice your Chinese opera under a tree at lunchtime
  • Play life-size 3D chess near the office at lunchtime
  • Limbo under an imaginary pole into the restroom
  • Dance in the corridor doing this jazz step or that one
  • Install a standing broad jump station along the corridor
  • Keep goldfish at your desk, changing their water each week
  • Impress the cleaning crew with your uncluttered desk
  • Scrub the mould off your coffee cups
  • Set up a “how many sit-ups in 5 min” competition

Just keep in mind a simple guideline: The more trips to the restroom, pantry, 7-11, cafeteria, playground, exercise garden, etc, the better. When you get tired, just whizz yourself down the corridor in your wheelie chair, swivelling from side to side with your legs off the floor. It’s good for your abs. And excellent entertainment for your bemused colleagues.