June 28, 2017

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by Abraham Lee

ARE you stressed at work? You’re not alone. Roffey Park‘s 2016 study and Willis Towers Watson’s 2014 survey findings have shown that at least half of Singaporean workers face workplace stress. It comes from various sources, anything from heavy workloads and organisational politics to a poor working environment, and can lead to both physical and mental health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and depression.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital, said that “the main sources of stress come from overwhelming workload and long hours of work leading to insufficient rest and poor work life balance” while others included “difficult and overly demanding superiors” and “interpersonal conflicts at the workplace“.

Poor or unsupportive relationships can put pressure on workers and office politics can complicate even the easiest tasks, making them tedious and drawn-out, wearing workers out. Workers who feel that they are unfairly treated can also feel isolated, putting undue pressure and stress on them.

Other common sources of stress come from employees feeling a lack of control at work or are faced with job insecurity. They can feel stressed because they are unable to take charge of their lives and made to feel unimportant and dispensable. Weak management can impress upon workers a sense of directionlessness and hopelessness while over-management can cause employees to feel discouraged, distrusted and undervalued, hurting their self-esteem.

Stress isn’t inherently a bad thing because it can motivate us to meet challenges. Said Dr Lim: “Stress is not always bad… As stress increases, our ability to function increases.” But if we become more stressed than we are able to handle, our ability to function plateaus and eventually falls sharply. “When we start to notice that the stress is getting the better of us… it is time to take stock of things and to slow down, rest and find means to de-stress,” said Dr Lim.

Stress takes a toll on the immune system and stressed out workers “are more prone to infections”. Long term stress is associated with a variety of physical health problems like diabetes, heart problems and stroke. Often overlooked is the risk stress poses to workers’ mental health. Dr Lim said that stress “can trigger mental illnesses such as insomnia, anxiety disorders and depression”.

Mental health problems can be “be extremely disruptive to people’s personal and professional lives”. “In mild cases, it may be that one takes a few days of sick leave from work and is slightly more irritable… In severe cases, one may be incapacitated and unable to work long term and may even be suicidal,” said Dr Lim. When asked how long it usually takes people to recover fully from mental health problems, he said that “people take different periods of time to recover”, that “some may take a few weeks to feel better and get back to their usual routine” while for others “the conditions can become chronic and permanently disabling”.

The first thing you can do is to find out if you are stressed and under too much pressure by checking yourself against the list of common symptoms or more accurately, take a free assessment online. If you’re an existing AIA customer, you’re in luck. Just sign up for AIA Vitality and take its Mental Wellbeing Assessment for a short spot-check.

After all, prevention is better than cure and it’s essential for your longterm health to develop a game plan that can help you manage stress in the workplace.

Breaking bad habits like worrying about the uncontrollable and flogging yourself over the need to be absolutely perfect can also help to reduce stress. Dr Lim said that “we have to start by understanding our own ability to handle stress” and our own limits. “Those who may be perfectionistic and harsh to themselves have to learn to change their mindset and be gentle to themselves,” he said.

It’s also important to develop supportive relationships, be it co-workers you can turn to or family and friends you can depend on. Instead of turning to your handheld devices during breaks, try engaging a colleague. A strong network of friends you can lean on can counteract the negative influence of work stress and ensure you’re not left feeling isolated and vulnerable.

“Asians tend to define themselves by their work, but it is imperative to also have adequate focus on family, exercise and hobbies,” said Dr Lim. “Only with a balanced life can we be more effective at work and sustain a high level of productivity and also maintain good physical and mental wellness.”

Exercise should be made a regular habit as it not only helps you to sleep better but boosts your mood, energy and ability to focus, while providing an avenue for relaxation. Form a running or cycling club with your friends and family, or challenge yourself in the AIA Vitality Weekly Challenge with your co-workers if you need that extra motivation.

How well you do at work lies in how well you maintain your body at home, when you’re not at work. Make sure to eat healthily, drinking alcohol in moderation, avoiding nicotine and caffeine, which can all dampen your mood.

Another tip is to get enough rest both at work and at home. Dr Lim said that “rest is not being away from work” or “not being productive but that it is part and parcel of work to allow rejuvenation and hence better productivity after rest”. Prioritise tasks and create a balanced schedule that won’t overwhelm you. Getting enough rest includes getting enough sleep. It affects how well your body recovers from the past day and how prepared it is for the following day.

Last but not least, if workplace stress persists, address the source of the pressure. Communicate with your boss, clarify expectations and ask changes that can help you manage your work better. Or ask for a few days off, for that long overdue holiday.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

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by George Khoo

I saw the signs a couple of months before my daughter’s wedding. The year running up to this point had been rough. I was feeling upset, tired, irritable and angry almost every day. I teared up easily and was constantly thinking negative thoughts, sometimes even suicidal ones.

Even though I was so tired most days, I wasn’t able to sleep properly, often waking up in the wee hours of the morning. How I felt added to my fatigue, frustration, hopelessness, guilt and feelings of worthlessness.

While the truth that I was clinically depressed started to sink in, I was probably still in denial and hoped that with time, rest and exercise, things would improve. However, it just got worse and the low moods and negative thoughts persisted.

Part of the reason for not seeking help early was because I’m from the medical profession. I felt that admitting that I needed help would not reflect well on me – a healthcare provider who’s not even able to care for himself.

 

How did it get this bad?

It wasn’t the volume of work that affected me most but the issues in my relationships. I have always tried to live peacefully with my fellow man and it’s not in my nature to confront others. However, the leadership roles I’ve taken up at work and in my church have increasingly put me into situations that require confrontation.

I had patients that year that I expected would be grateful to me but turned around to question me on the wisdom of the recommendations I had made with their best interests at heart. I had a colleague who was pushing me to pursue something I was not comfortable with. And I had to confront people who had made wrong choices and required disciplinary action. Meanwhile, in church, a man told me to my face that he wanted me to step down as a church leader.

The worst was when a leader at work, unhappy with a policy I was trying to revise, accused me of being more interested in systems and policies than in caring for patients. I had spent sleepless nights worrying for my patients and trying to get them good healthcare and while what the leader said was absurd, it really hurt to hear him say that to me.

All of this played into my feelings of worthlessness and frustration, causing me to feel even more irritable and upset than I already was.

 

An unusual sense of loss

At some point, however, I realised that these were not the only causes for what I was feeling. It dawned on me that a big factor was the prospect of ‘losing’ my precious daughter once she gets married. That year, we must have attended close to 10 other weddings and I dreaded going to them because they just reminded me that soon, I was to give away my own daughter. Each wedding became more and more difficult to attend and the worst was the one two weeks before her wedding. I teared throughout the wedding thinking of what it was going to be like on that day!

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I was unable to make sense of how depressed this made me feel until I read Unmasking Male Depression by Archibald D. Hart:

“Then there was the time when my first daughter was going to be married. I found myself quite depressed a few months before the wedding. Finally, it dawned on me that my little girl was saying goodbye to me in favour of a young man who was not part of me. Like it or not, being excited for my daughter was not enough to overcome my sense of sadness. I was facing a loss that could never be replaced. There were those who said to me, “You’re not losing a daughter but gaining a son-in-law.” What a ridiculous idea! What I was losing could not be counterbalanced by what I was gaining. Every father of a daughter knows that a son-in-law does not equal a daughter!”

Coming across that passage was like hitting the jackpot (not that I play). Finally, someone understood how I was feeling – he had been through the same thing and knew how I felt.

 

Getting help

I finally plucked up the courage to make an appointment with a psychiatrist to confirm my own suspicion. I needed to know for sure, to be fair to my family and my loved ones. In any case, I had reached a point where not much else mattered and I wasn’t bothered about the stigma associated with taking anti-depressants 

I had reached a point where not much else mattered and I wasn’t bothered about the stigma associated with taking anti-depressants

I was put on Lexapro (escitalopram) and during my review, three and half months after my first appointment, my psychiatrist doubled my dosage. I was definitely feeling better in terms of having less frequent thoughts of hopelessness and a stop to the suicidal thoughts but I was not “walking on clouds”. About a week later, I distinctly remember waking up one morning and thinking: “Oh, this is what it feels to be normal?” That morning, after many months of feeling down, moody and negative, I felt that burden lift. My medication was working well.

The other thing that helped me greatly was reading the Bible and other Christian literature on depression and burnout. I found them to be great in creating self-awareness and for self-therapy.

 

“I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”Psalm 27:13-14

“Despite being a dedicated gospel-hearted Christian who preached grace, the truth is that I was dangerously close to living a gospel of works, not grace.” – Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout

“The surprising truth is that the person who pauses long enough to refresh his soul along the way actually becomes more alert, more alive, more efficient.” – W. Phillip Keller, Strength of Soul

 

The other main factor on my road to recovery was the tremendous support given to me by my beloved wife and family. At the end of our family holiday, six weeks before my daughter’s wedding, I decided to be open with them at the airport while waiting for our flight back to Singapore. I am thankful that they took it very well and were very encouraging.

My wife, who knew my struggles all throughout, was a pillar of strength when my whole world was crumbling emotionally. She is not only my best confidante and my best friend, she also makes me laugh and reminded me to rest. She was ever patient with me when I was negative and moody and even scratches my back to help me sleep! God gave her the strength and grace to put up with me.

It’s been a two and a half year journey and while my psychiatrist has encouraged me to try weaning off the Lexapro, I realise that as long as I am in my current role, in church and at work, it would not be possible. I have tried weaning it off but have had to go back on my medication rather quickly. Nonetheless, my dosage has halved and my recovery has been steady.

Having been through the worst periods has helped me to be more disciplined about taking regular breaks. Now, I take a week off every three to four months and am intentional about observing the weekly Sabbath as a time of rest from work. As the writer Christopher Ash puts it in Zeal without Burnout, “God needs no day off. But I am not God, and I do.”

 

Stigma

I have chosen to be open about the fact that I am still on anti-depressants because there is a need to remove the stigma associated with it. In Singapore and in this part of the world, to be on anti-depressants is still very much taboo. Thankfully, I work in a Christian organization that fully understands and supports my stand. However, other employers may not be as understanding and that is probably one of the main reasons why people do not speak up – the fear of losing their jobs or not getting one should they be honest.

While it is probably too idealistic to expect no discrimination at all, I hope that we can help employers be open to accepting applicants with a history of mental illness but are stable on medication. They should be at least considered in the same way as those with other chronic illnesses such as hypertension or diabetes. As long as they are capable of performing the tasks and do not pose a danger to themselves or others, they should be given equal opportunities.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. – Psalm 16:6

 

Dr George Khoo is a general practitioner in his late 50’s and serves as the Medical Advisor for a Christian organisation. George is married to Mabel and has two grown up children, both happily married. George and Mabel have a newborn grandchild and are expecting a second within the next few weeks.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site Snopes.com said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on schoolbag.sg regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.

 

 

Featured image by Google user Pixabay. CCO.

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by Daniel Yap

THE focus of insurers has traditionally been on offering customers financial protection against unexpected life events such as illnesses. With good risk management and underwriting processes in place, it is generally sustainable for insurers to continue offering compelling insurance products that meet their customers’ protection needs.

But in this age of great convenience enabled by technology and with the ever-expanding food choices, it is becoming increasingly challenging for insurers to support the growing financial needs of their customers as a result of their unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

An insurer ultimately has a stake in its customers’ health, and they need to find a way to influence their customers’ lifestyle choices in order to stay ahead of the spiralling healthcare costs and ensure their long term sustainability.

How then can an insurer encourage healthy behaviours?

The human mind is wired to miscalculate decisions about long- and short-term gains (we explained it all here), like eating healthy or driving safely, are stymied by hyperbolic discounting and other types of short-term thinking. No Claim Discount for motor insurance, for example, don’t always account for the risks that others take since you only lose your discount after an accident occurs.

Discount programmes that some companies offer for healthy lifestyle choices are common, but these compete with other discount programmes from retailers or dining clubs that are designed to tempt you in the opposite direction.

But what if there was a more effective way to motivate healthy behaviours? AIA Vitality, for example, is one such attempt to help each party get the most out of their insurance – customers who upkeep a healthy lifestyle receive a variety of rewards as well as premium discounts, while those who have been less healthy would be motivated to move towards the same direction. The insurance company, on the other hand, can continue to offer customers adequate protection at affordable premiums.

The key is how AIA Vitality leverages science and technology to drive positive behavioural change by employing comprehensive tools to assess each member’s health and make tailored recommendations to help them become healthier. It also makes use of the principles of behavioural science and rewards members who are on track to becoming healthier.

The problem of hyperbolic discounting is also addressed more effectively – people tempted to veg on the sofa are given a very realistic weekly activity challenge (such as clocking 7,500 steps a day or checking in at the gym) to meet for a reward of a $5 voucher, which alone more than offsets the $3-a-month cost of being on the programme. The company partners with supermarket chain Cold Storage to offer cash back rewards worth up to $160 each month for healthy food items. Add to that a range of discounts and tie-ups with healthy partners and you have a much more holistic approach for tackling unhealthy living.

But why would an insurer give you $5 a week and more for something that you only pay $3 a month for? That’s because this method has proven to be a win-win for all – a study on Vitality members found that those who engaged in the programme were less likely to fall sick or be hospitalised for prolonged illnesses, resulting in an overall 14 per cent lower cost per hospitalised patient.

Those who ranked higher in the Vitality programme which divides members into Bronze, Silver and Gold statuses, saw a lower mortality rate in practically every age group. It’s a data-driven system that has been fine-tuned to benefit all participants.

Everyone gets what they want – customers enjoy rewards when they meet their health goals and pay less for their insurance as they become healthier. AIA Singapore, on the other hand, gains from healthier customers who will help to ensure that insurance remains affordable for all.

The end result is a more effective model than simply offering financial protection- by driving behavioural and lifestyle change, insurers like AIA Singapore are now able to keep their customers healthier, lower premium costs and stay sustainable in the long run: what the company calls “shared value for health”.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

by Mahita Vas

IN OCTOBER 2015, my husband and I contacted one of the participating insurance agencies about signing up for the Integrated Shield Plan (IP). We were keen on a better coverage than what was offered on our MediShield Life plans. Within days, we heard that my husband’s application had been approved. Mine was rejected, but the agent said she would appeal. Less than a week later, I was told the appeal was also rejected. No other option was offered.

I tried all the other agencies. At that time there were five – AIA, Aviva, Great Eastern, NTUC Income and Prudential. I was rejected by all of them. Great Eastern told me not to bother applying because my application would definitely be rejected.

Disheartened, I pointed out that I was fit and healthy. I exercised regularly and was careful about what I ate. Neither a smoker nor a drinker. Minimum eight hours sleep. But the answers were all the same – nope. Not approved.

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All because I share one thing in common with these people – Catherine Zeta-Jones, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, Nina Simone, Lee Joon, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher and Eason Chan. The list goes on: Mel Gibson, Stephen Fry, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale. The list does go on but I’ll stop here.

They are amongst the greatest artists, musicians, performers, writers and thinkers who ever lived. I cannot, dare not, compare myself to any of these leaders in their respective fields, being nowhere nearly as accomplished as any of them. Great as their achievements have been, they are also, first and foremost, people. Just like me. And like about 2 per cent of the world’s population, including Singapore’s.

People with a dreadful illness once known as manic depressive illness, now known as bipolar disorder. An illness marked by extreme mood swings, where patients go from feeling overly happy to feeling empty. Bipolar disorder is indiscriminate, incurable and requires lifelong medication. With diligent medication and visits to the doctor, it is possible for patients to function as normally as anyone.

When I appealed to the insurance companies, I provided them with a doctor’s report from the Institute of Mental Health, which stated that I was compliant with medication and in full remission. Still, my appeals were rejected. I questioned the discrimination – after all, they could simply provide exclusions for any psychiatric treatment or injuries arising from my condition, for instance, injuries sustained in a failed suicide attempt. Some of the agencies raised the issue of two other minor and common ailments but when challenged, agreed that without bipolar disorder, I would get an IP with exclusions for those ailments. The rejection was blamed squarely on bipolar disorder.

Discrimination forces people to keep fighting for equitable treatment. So, on a friend’s advice, I went to see my MP at a Meet-The-People Session armed with an appeal letter, along with all the rejection letters. I didn’t get to meet my MP but his team of volunteers who looked into my case were very helpful. They said it was unlikely that any of the international agencies would bother about a letter from an MP, and advised focusing on NTUC Income as it was my best chance. I left feeling hopeful because my MP was none other than Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Several weeks later, I received a letter which said this, among the usual official phrases:

“We hope you understand that it is our duty to underwrite each case according to our underwriting guidelines consistently so as to be fair to the others who contribute to the risk pool.”

Please help me understand how I could be at a greater risk than someone who drinks and smokes heavily and may even be obese? Risk of what, exactly?

Followed by this:

“Moving forward, we are willing to assess your coverage in future, when you have fully recovered and have been discharged from your follow up for your bipolar disorder condition without the need for medication.”

Brilliant. The day I am discharged from my follow up, when I no longer need medication, will be the day I die. Bipolar disorder is incurable.

Mental illness has no known comorbidity with physical illness. By rejecting my application and appeals, these insurance companies are deliberately denying me coverage for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, all of which have no relation to my mental state.

I made a random check with the overseas offices of two of the international insurance agencies which rejected my application. All offered critical illness plans for psychiatric patients, though with exclusions. Some plans offered supplementary coverage for psychiatric care. So why exclude psychiatric patients in Singapore? Because they can?

If I could bring Isaac Newton, Beethoven or Charles Dickens back to this future, living in Singapore and requiring an IP, I wonder if these companies would deny them coverage.

I also wonder why NTUC Income thought it fit to use me, specifically my condition, on their first Future Peek campaign, and yet think I am unworthy of their insurance policy. Use my condition for marketing but spit me out when I want to buy an IP. Such hypocrisy.

NTUC Income’s website states “Insurance Made Simple, Made Honest, Made Different” and with great emphasis, “People. First”.  I wonder what they really mean by those claims.

 

Mahita Vas is the author of ‘Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy: A Memoir Of Mood Swings’. She spends her time on advocating mental health issues and pursuing personal interests including reading and writing.

 

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by Abraham Lee

YOU, at work, not getting enough exercise, not eating right and stressing out. That’s going to cost you – years of life and insurance money, compounded by a medical inflation rate of 15 per cent in 2015. It’s going to cost your employer – lower productivity from the time you spend, sick days and medical claims. It’s going to cost the nation – more than $1 billion from diabetes alone in 2010, and expected to be over $2.5 billion by 2050. 12 per cent of Singapore’s population is pre-diabetic- it will get worse.

But who should be concerned about employee health? Employers currently have the most control over workplace culture, but how can employers, human resource professionals, and even employees, build a healthy culture at the workplace?

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No budget? No problem. While the first step to building a healthy culture in the workplace requires commitment from the company’s (or the department’s) leadership, it can be simple and cheap to implement. Mr Alexander Yap, Global Rewards Director at United Test and Assembly Center, shared about how his department, after talking about losing weight and getting healthier for ages, decided to set team health as one of their Key Performance Indicators.

Mr Yap said that it “starts with an awakening” and leading by example. He formed a cycling team at work and started off with just short routes around the company premises. Over time, the team cycled longer distances and more often, at times covering 200km a week. In just five months, Mr Yap lost 16kg, and every member of his team clocked some healthy weight loss.

Offering smart incentives is also key to guiding workers towards developing healthier habits because of the short-term judgement errors likely to be made when it comes to decisions on health. Mr Yap highlighted that since the company became an existing AIA customer, the corporate AIA Vitality programme encouraged him and his colleagues to pursue healthier choices.

Encouraging a culture of health can also come from the choice architecture of our office spaces. For example, placing prominent staircases in the layout of an office building can encourage employees to climb stairs. Low uptake on the free fruit basket? Simply moving the complimentary fruit from the corner pantry to a well-lit, accessible part of the office would increase consumption two-fold. Introducing standing desks will encourage workers to get off their bums more often.

The panel experts also emphasised the importance of not procrastinating and taking small, repeatable actions. Dr Derek Yach, Chief Health Officer of Vitality Group, talked about how physical activity triggers more healthy activity and encourages healthier habits, and that this cycle can lead to more success.

He shared data showing how companies that participated in the AIA Vitality programme saw fewer medical certificates being taken and produced lower rates of absenteeism. There was also a correlation between companies with more active participants in the programme and those that saw lower medical costs. Healthier employees are also more productive and motivated at work.

Senior Consultant of the National Heart Centre, Dr Carolyn Lam echoed these sentiments and said that “we have to start somewhere” and that “that feeling of being on the right track… is addictive”. As a cardiologist, she was more eager to preventing heart disease than treat it, and started encouraging the medical staff on her shift to walk up and down the stairs between wards instead of taking the lift.

These small, measurable changes, she said, help to build habits and it is best when these habits are reinforced with small rewards. When asked how long results take to be seen, Dr Lam said, “We expect a response to lifestyle measurements in terms of the reduction in blood pressure or reduction in cholesterol levels and so on, within three months.”

Perhaps it’s time we started taking our workplace health as seriously as we do our careers. The end of a career is retirement, usually at 63, but our health choices stay with us until the very end of our lives.
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This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

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Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC CC BY 2.0

by Abraham Lee

DIABETES isn’t a disease you “catch”, and that means that nobody can “give” it to you. But it’s not far-fetched to say that your job could put you at risk. Lifestyle factors form many of the risk factors for developing diabetes, and since we spend about a third of our day working (and for some of us another third of our day thinking about work), your job, work environment and the people around you become key factors in the war against diabetes.

Singaporeans work among the longest hours in the world. In 2015, we worked “an average of 2,371.2 paid hours” – longer hours than those in reputedly ‘workaholic’ nations like South Korea and Japan. Work habits and culture have a great deal of influence over our lives simply because we spend so much of our time at work.

While great habits at work can promote positivity, bad ones can debilitate other areas of our lives, especially our health. Singapore ranks second among developed nations for diabetics as a proportion of the population, with 11.3 per cent of Singapore residents suffering from diabetes in 2010. That number is projected to rise dramatically to 20 per cent by 2050.

None of us wants the lifetime burden that diabetes promises. The incurable disease is also the gateway to heart disease, stroke, blindness and other complications. The most common strain, Type 2 diabetes, is largely due to lifestyle factors and is usually seen “in people aged 40 and above who are overweight and physically inactive”.

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So what are the riskiest things about our job, diabetes-wise?

Working late can disrupt your mealtimes, sleep patterns, and heighten stress levels. Irregular meal times from skipped meals or late lunches or working late “are linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome”, a group of factors that increase the risk of heart disease and problems like diabetes.

Stress from work also messes up your hormone levels, including cortisol which increases appetite and can lead to overeating when its levels remain elevated due to continued stress.

Entertaining clients over drinks, or going out drinking with colleagues, if done too frequently, can also become a hazardous habit as alcohol intake is linked to Type 2 diabetes.

Your work posture can cause tension in your muscles which in turn changes our hormone levels. Sedentary, desk-bound work also lowers our activity levels, which puts us at risk of weight gain, which can lead to diabetes.

Fatigue from work often discourages us from spending time in the evening exercising – it’s much more tempting to veg out in front of the computer or TV, and then go to sleep.

While workers should take responsibility for their own choices, companies are also key stakeholders in promoting healthy lifestyles for employees through healthier work culture. Promoting work life balance, encouraging workers to exercise more and reminding them to practise self-care will result in healthier and more productive employees.

It’s not all that difficult to do either. The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has led the way with healthy eating campaigns and the National Steps Challenge which encourages walking 10,000 steps per day with in-kind rewards. In its second season, it introduced the Corporate Challenge pitting companies against each other with cash prizes at stake and setting up a platform for intra-company challenges.

Complementing HPB’s National Step Challenge is AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme, launched by AIA Singapore to help users make real change to their health. The programme offers weekly rewards to members when they meet their weekly physical activity targets, cashback, discounts on gym memberships, airfares and more to incentivise them in making healthy choices. This wellness programme is also made available to companies who wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

It’s going to be a tough fight to live a healthy lifestyle at the workplace, but with the commitment from both the public and private sectors to create a healthier workforce, we can win the fight against diabetes. In the end everyone stands to gain – us, the G, employers and our children.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Daniel Yap

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew worked out for about an hour each day, including during lunchtime. President Barack Obama exercises for 45 minutes, six times a week. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour plays tennis daily. The “Oracle” Warren Buffet exercises regularly as well, and they all swear it makes them more productive at work, in addition to the obvious health benefits.

It’s something companies have caught on to as well. As a matter of fact, the short-term productivity benefits of regular exercise – happy workers and sharper minds from naturally-produced endorphins and stimulants – are significant enough for bosses to start consider exercise to be part of a workday.

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Those of us who have worked at Japanese or Chinese firms may have experienced a bit of that “workout” workplace culture – stretches and simple calisthenics at the start of each workday. But many companies are taking it further than that.

One study of more than 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm, showed that 30-60 minutes of exercise resulted in a 15 per cent boost to work productivity that day – that’s 6-12 per cent of an 8-hour workday in exchange for a 15 per cent boost.

On top of that, workers felt better about their work and about themselves after exercising, which could have longer-term benefits in terms of worker retention and mental wellness.

In the long-term, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that replacing 2.5 hours of work with exercise in six healthcare workplaces led to a noticeable reduction in absences, higher productivity and more patients seen.

Locally, OCBC, AIA Singapore and KPMG have launched programmes to reward employees who exercise regularly. The advent of wearable fitness trackers has enabled easy and accurate tracking of employee activity and disbursement of incentives, which can be worth as much as $100 a month.

But what’s the cost to set up such a programme for other firms, especially smaller ones? Building an in-house gym may be out of reach for most, and gym memberships can be costly to reimburse, and usage hard to track.

Some HR consulting firms can help plan a programme for a fee, or one could turn to a growing number of fitness incentive apps from vendors in Singapore and abroad.

The AIA Vitality wellness programme, which is exclusive to AIA policyholders at $36 a year, is also made available to companies that wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

Nevertheless, a determined worker shouldn’t let the lack of a company policy stand in the way of better performance. Aim for a 20-30 minute activity during your lunch break, which should give you time to cool off and grab a quick bite before getting back in the hot seat.

The science is clear: It’s high time we considered fitness and exercise to be part of the job.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

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by Daniel Yap

SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.

The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.

It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.

Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.

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For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.

Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.

Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.

Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.

How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.

Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.

This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.

Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.

We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been swimming four times a week for the past four years. Okay, I’m lying. I have bouts of down time which usually last a couple of weeks. The last bout lasted two months, until the middle of February.

I suppose I can trot out the usual excuses like no time, crowded pool, rain etcetera to justify my sloth. Truth is, as anyone who exercises regularly knows, it’s so hard to get back into the groove if you’re out of it so long. So during the two months of inactivity, I did what I’m sure no doctor would recommend: I ate less. I figured that less exercise should be accompanied by less calorific intake. After all, my mantra is, I exercise so that I can eat whatever I want.

People say that even if the rain was pouring down or the pool filled with screaming kids, there’s always the gymnasium or other exercises that are weather and child-proof. I agree. Except I think swimming is the least disruptive of all exercises both pre-and post-wise. At least for me.

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I just change into my costume, drape a towel around myself and my feet in flip flops and take the lift to the ground-floor to the condo swimming pool. I do so in the mornings, when children are already in school and tai tais haven’t readied themselves for public exposure. Neighbours always ask me the same question when they see me in the pool: “Isn’t it cold?” I tell them it’s cold only if you decide to stay put in the pool, which is surely not the point of the activity.

I am no swimmer, frankly. I’ve always feared water and won’t get into a pool where my feet can’t feel the floor. I swim breast-stroke only and keep my head above water all the time. I do not wear goggles or a swimming cap. I find them “fussy”.

While I don’t know how to tread water, I am very good at walking, jogging and doing a whole bunch of exercises in the pool. I don’t know if they qualify as aqua-aerobics but they are, believe me, tiring.

When I am done, usually in 40 minutes, I get out of the pool, drape a towel and proceed home for a bath. It’s so much easier than getting into jogging gear with socks and the right shoes. And then having to get out of them.

How did I get myself back in the groove? By that most mundane of methods: looking in the mirror. People who exercise look healthier. I look thinner but unhealthy. Then there’s the other big difference between people who exercise and those who don’t: watch the way they walk. The fitter person seems to float on air while the sloth drags his weary body. I was starting to “feel’’ heavy.

Then there are the eight sets of swimming costumes that lie un-used in my wardrobe. I hesitate to get into them because I’m worried about looking flabby. Yet I know I will get flabbier if I don’t get into them. I did the next best thing: I bought myself another swimming costume. Now…if you buy something, you will use it. I don’t regret paying for the new costume because of what I have been able to receive in terms of healthier skin and lighter feet.

It also means I can eat more.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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