June 26, 2017

Tags Posts tagged with "work"


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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by Daniel Yap

I CAN feel the massive ship turning ever so slightly. A raft of changes to the education system signals a shift in the balance, and even a cynic cannot help but wonder how far it will go.

The Polytechnics’ Early Admissions Exercise (EAE), which weighs student interest and aptitude in addition to grades, will now admit up to 15 per cent of the cohort, up from 12.5 per cent last year and 2.5 per cent the year before. The Institutes of Technical Education will also be admitting 15 per cent of the next cohort on these terms.

And then NUS, NTU and SMU will increase the proportion of discretionary admissions from 10 to 15 per cent. It’s the G’s realisation that the best lawyers and engineers aren’t only the ones with straight As. It’s an awakening to the fact that some have been “gaming” the system with academic hothousing, and that students with a headful of knowledge may be pursuing courses of study and careers that fail to light a fire in their hearts.

And then there’s the Skillsfuture Earn and Learn programme, which is as close a programme to an apprenticeship that Singapore has right now. It covers 23 sectors, and the number of takers this year is expected to double to 1,000 which is still only a fraction of the student cohort. But its key takeaway is that the best way to learn a job is by doing it – something that the tertiary education system in Singapore has previously tried to do too much of from within the classroom.

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The civil service has done away with the division system that puts a false ceiling on those without academic qualifications. Teachers and those in the uniformed services now have unified career paths for polytechnic and university graduates.

What more is to come? The Straits Times recently published an op-ed calling for 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions to universities – will Singapore go the distance? Will we be able to push deeper “apprenticeships”, whatever form they may take? Can we break down the walls between work and training into one seamless system of organic but structured self-improvement?

Can we do away with the current “scholarship” system that all but guarantees career paths (and sometimes goes out of the way to ensure the paths are followed) and find another way to develop and attract top talent?

But even in the midst of change, there are fears that the tide is against us. The greatest risk is that parents, employers, students and even workers themselves have ingrained mindsets that will not change. But a ship is made to cut through the waves and push against the forces of nature whereas our port of call will not come to us by itself.

There is hope for this skills-and-aptitude-favouring trend to accelerate if Singaporeans get on board. For one, there has been very little public pushback against these changes. Criticisms about this trend are often a product of a lack of faith in the ability to change rather than unhappiness with the proposed changes.

The majority of Singaporeans seem to, jadedly, acknowledge that all these are good changes, but they think like passengers rather than sailors – unsure of what their role is in helping to move the ship towards their too-distant destination.

When we shrug and keep our heads down, we miss out on the changing view. Parents miss out on their key role in helping their children navigate their education and career options based on their strengths and interests so that their children will be able to make informed choices. If you’ve already decided from the day of his or her birth that your child shall be a doctor/lawyer/banker, then you will be neglecting the most precious parts of your child’s personality.

Pushing your child to get the best grades they can is important, but so is helping them to discover their strengths, make a positive impact in society and find heartfelt satisfaction in life.

Students must be going to school with the long-term view that one day, all these studying will end and the transition to working life is going to be a question of skills and applied knowledge – rather than a test of grades. They need to learn to chart their own career path and understand how to continuously work on walking down that path.

Parents, as today’s workers, need to show their children that they too are constantly learning on the job and outside of it, and that learning is fulfilling and is part of a deliberate plan to better oneself.

The ship of education, of work, of learning, is turning, and everyone on board will inevitably turn too. But how fast we turn and how quickly we move depends on how many of us are sailors, and how many of us are merely passengers.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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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 Wesley Gunter and Marc Bakker

IT’S no surprise that Singapore’s workforce has come under scrutiny lately with a study by Singapore Management University (SMU) and financial services group J P Morgan stating that there is an insufficient focus on soft skills.

This largely reflects Singapore’s education system (now going through a major overhaul) which used to focus primarily on academic performance rather than taking into consideration other aspects such as teamwork, creativity, communication, networking and debating skills, among others.

And it’s not just schools that are to be blamed for this “paper-chase”. With parental expectations largely focusing on grades and numbers instead of a holistic education consisting of sports, music, and so on, it’s no wonder many of us have grown up to identify ourselves solely by our qualifications.

So why are soft skills so important? They, more than theoretical knowledge, qualifications or even practical experience, will determine how effective employees will be when working with others. Basically, employers such as ourselves value staff who are effective in influencing decisions and getting things done.

These attributes can turn a mediocre employee (on paper) into a great asset to a company. 

It’s exactly these skills that employers are looking to assess during the interview process. When it comes to yearly employee evaluation, it’s these same skills – paired with performance – that have a considerable bearing on the appraisal and promotion prospects within a company structure.


Use paper qualifications wisely

While racking up more certificates or degrees in your profession may look impressive on your portfolio, the biggest challenge is how you’re going to use this to your advantage. In order to do this, communication skills are vital to put across to your employer how these skills you have studied so hard to acquire can be applied effectively towards the job you’re applying for.

While I do agree that qualifications play a large part in getting your foot in the door, experience trumps qualifications any day. We would hire a diploma graduate with three years of relevant work experience over a fresh Harvard graduate at the drop of a hat. The reason is simple – no time is wasted in training someone to get the job done. We can also be fairly comfortable that they know how to behave appropriately in a professional setting.

Now if we had to choose between two fresh graduates for the same job position, it always boils down to the interview and never the qualifications. Why? It would be useless for us to hire someone who thinks he/she knows everything based on their degree, compared to someone who is less qualified yet willing to learn. Someone who is less qualified but possesses a set of “soft skills”, or “street smarts” to get them ahead, is a bigger asset. It’s the hunger to prove one’s worth and humility to accept guidance that sets them apart and allows them to grow into, and eventually beyond, their role.

If you look at the Steve Jobs and Richard Branson of the world, you’ll realise that neither of these guys were more educated or knew more about their job than the next guy. What set them apart, among other aspects, were their communication skills in effectively convincing others that they were better than the rest and to follow their vision and come onboard as staff, investors or clients.

Potential employees, especially fresh graduates with a stack of paper qualifications and certificates, need to realise this – no one owes you a job because of what you know, but because of what you bring to the table. 

It’s tempting to focus on paper qualifications over soft skills. For one it’s difficult to assess soft skills as they can be highly subjective and a product of personal preference, style, and attitude.

Then there’s the question of what exactly soft skills are. They can be hard to define entirely. One thing is for certain: although it’s an encouraging sign that the G is reassessing its stance on education and is open to broadening the scope of what a good education entails, we are still afraid that the focus might end up to be too narrow.

As employers, we would encourage the G to cast the net wider and consider a broad range of attributes under this label. Soft skills will always be required to climb the corporate ladder when you close major deals, address your employees, and even when you present your multi-million dollar start-up ideas to your investors.


Wesley and Marc head up Right Hook Communications, a PR and marketing SME.

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success

5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?


Featured image by Natassya Siregar.

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

by Daniel Yap and Wan Ting Koh

EVERYONE’S talking about the G’s move to restrict Internet access for people working in both ministries and agencies from next year. Is it really necessary? How bad could it get for the G to resort to such a drastic measure? How will civil and public servants be affected?

Here are 10 questions we have for the G, and how they might answer:

1. How much slower will the civil service function because of this move?

We often hear of public servants complaining that their workload is too heavy (of course, nobody complains that it is too light). It is well-known that teachers have hectic schedules. Surely these already-packed schedules will be worsened by the air-gap, no? Or will taking things offline force officers to cut down on busywork to survive?

What the G might say:

Any interruption is likely to be work-flow based and minor. If you’re fond of copying and pasting online content to your work emails, well, you can’t do that anymore. Different ministries and agencies will take the rest of the year to figure how to work around this. Some will be more affected than others. The Education Ministry, for example, has already said that it won’t be restricting its teachers from using the Internet since they use it for teaching and learning purposes.


2. Was there an imminent or past cyber-threat that prompted this move?

Although it is probably safe to assume Singapore is being spied on at all times, was there any incident (domestic or foreign) that prompted this decision? There must have been pros and cons weighed. How did the scales finally tip this way?

What the G might say:

Or you could argue perhaps that it was only a matter of time before the G headed down this path. Just earlier this year, South Korea claimed that North Korea had tried to hack into the email of South Korean railway workers in an attempt to control the transport system.

Luckily, it was able to block the attack by closing the employees’ email accounts. In another incident, the mobile phones of 40 national security officials in South Korea were hacked. So you might say that there have already been plenty of examples that have led to this perhaps drastic move – even if none of them happened in Singapore.

Just earlier this year, South Korea claimed that North Korea had tried to hack into the email of South Korean railway workers in an attempt to control the transport system.

3. Why apply this to ministries that may not be considered high-security?

The teaching service (although that brings to mind the “computer glitch” that delayed student ranking data recently), the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and Manpower Ministry may not be obvious high-value cyber targets. Was the decision to air-gap implemented across the board rather than calibrated based on more tailored risk/impact assessments?

What the G might say:

Well, it’s true that some ministries are not considered as high-security as others that hold, say, state secrets. But in general the G does have extremely sensitive information – about everyone, you included.

Take what happened last year in the United States for example. A total of 21.5 million people were involved in a massive breach of government computer systems which resulted in the theft of their personal information, including their social security numbers, their financial history, some fingerprints and even their health records.

While these are not state sensitive information, these are still private details that no one wants in the hands of strangers who are probably up to no good, to put it mildly.

A total of 21.5 million people were involved in a massive breach of government computer systems which resulted in the theft of their personal information, including their social security numbers, their financial history, some fingerprints and even their health records.

4. How severe would the effect of a cyber-attack on the G be, based on current systems?

The uniformed and essential services such as utilities already practise some degree of air-gapping. What risks is Singapore currently exposed to that might result in serious consequences due to a cyber attack? Most known cyber attacks these days do not have very severe consequences. What other consequences are there that we don’t hear much of?

What the G might say:

While Singapore has not been hit by major cyber attacks, it is not invulnerable to security threats. Security software firm Symantec’s Internet Security Threats reported last year that Singapore was the third most popular destination for spear-phishing, where crooks send messages through email that appear to come from a trusted source, but in fact downloads malware or viruses to victims that click on the fake link.

We can also look to instances of cyber attack in other countries to see just how bad it can get. Ukraine’s power grid was attacked by hackers in Russia, who cut off electricity to over tens of thousands of people in December last year. The hackers also flooded the call centres of the power companies to prevent customers from reporting the outage.

Ukraine’s power grid was attacked by hackers in Russia, who cut off electricity to over tens of thousands of people in December last year. The hackers also flooded the call centres of the power companies to prevent customers from reporting the outage.

5. What kinds of systems can be put in place to mitigate the negative effects of air-gapping?

We’ve heard very briefly about how workflow will change for civil servants after government computers go offline. What measures are in place to improve workflow in the new operating environment? Will Singapore develop new systems?

What the G might say:

While new systems have yet to be announced by the G, it has said that the agencies and data scientists will be coming together to decide on the possible measures to mitigate the inconveniences caused by the restrictions. Beginning from this year, the restrictions will be rolled out in phases to different groups of public and civil servants to ease them into their new workflow process.


6. What other cyber defence solutions were considered and rejected before deciding on this one?

Has any other technology or process been developed that can help with Singapore’s cyber security? Why were these inadequate?

What the G might say:

An alternative operating system perhaps? Why not upgrade our defences instead of doing away with the internet altogether? While this might seem intuitive, other factors come into play, such as cost. Constantly upgrading our systems to deal with evolving cyber security threats might cost up to billions of dollars, what with our sizable civil/public service sector. This would include having to constantly maintain those 100,000 computers to keep them virus-free.

Just look at how much we’ve spent on cybersecurity in the past years. In 2013, we spent $130 million on a plan to enhance the G’s cybersecurity in the face of a rising tide of global cyberattacks. Just last year, 10 per cent of the IT budget was spent on cybersecurity. This will likely rise if we were to keep upgrading our systems.

So you could say that both upgrading the system or switching to another, will cost a lot of money. Question is, which is going to be more effective in preventing a cyber attack?


7. What cyber-attack capabilities do our adversaries have?

What can they do? How will they do it? Who are they exactly?

What the G might say:

Well, we can’t say who for sure. Presumably people from various backgrounds would like to hack into our systems to get their hands on information that may be beneficial to them, including state and non-state actors. They might be terrorists, trying to seek state ransoms to fund their activities, as was the case with the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, which had to fork out US$17,000 (S$22967.85) worth of bitcoin in ransom in February this year after hackers installed a virus that encrypted their files, leaving hospital employees unable to access health records. They might be students trying to bring down systems for lulz.

They might be terrorists, trying to seek state ransoms to fund their activities, as was the case with the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, which had to fork out US$17,000 (S$22967.85) worth of bitcoin in ransom in February this year after hackers installed a virus that encrypted their files, leaving hospital employees unable to access health records.

8. How prone are civil servants to security breaches?

Is there complacency or ignorance among civil servants when it comes to cyber security? Would such attitudes still place our government systems at risk even with air-gapping? Stuxnet infected Iran’s nuclear program even though it was offline.

What the G might say:

Complacency could definitely be a risk-factor. But sometimes it could be as easy as surfing the wrong website or clicking a false link sent to you via email. Surfing the wrong websites might make you susceptible to malware downloads.

Cyber Security Agency of Singapore told TODAY that with the new restrictions, “the specific actions that are prohibited in this instance are actions that attackers want government employees to do, such as clicking on a link in a spear-phishing email, thereby allowing attackers to use the Internet surfing channels to exfiltrate stolen information.”


9. What about major contractors who handle sensitive projects for the G: Will they also be required to air gap their systems? Or do they already practise this?

NCS, for example, develops some of the software used by the military. ST’s group companies also work on high-security projects. What happens if they get attacked? Is there a need for them to conform to the same safety protocols?

What the G might say:

In general, contractors currently have their own instruction manual which they have to follow with regard to security measures. These manuals are updated periodically, and the next time they are, contractors might find themselves having to follow in the agencies’ footsteps as well.


10. Is this practice recommended for other industries?

If this is a good decision for the whole of the G, would that mean it is also a good practice for other industries or companies as well? Productivity loss by the G due to a cyber attack can be as bad as productivity loss from a cyber attack on the private sector. Are there real risks that Singapore’s companies and citizens face that we are unaware of?

What the G might say:

Currently for banks, telcos, and casinos, cutting off Internet access entirely is not common practice. Some banks give only some employees Internet access, all while blocking file-sharing sites, web-hosted email and pornography websites. But these companies also have a trove of personal details in their systems, so while the G can’t really tell them what to do, there may be a cause for restricting Internet access to all but those who really need it. After all, since even Hollywood studio Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked, who’s to say companies with more sensitive information, like banks, would not be?  


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Brenda Tan

LOOKING back at my reaction last month to my doctor’s diagnosis of my stomach cancer, I realise that my reaction to the news was probably not the norm. Even though every cancer diagnosis is unique, and reactions to cancer diagnosis depend greatly on a patient’s age, personality, family situation and presentation of cancer, I suspect that when a doctor breaks the news of cancer to his patient, the usual reaction is not a cheerful curiosity about what’s to come next.

I had a lot of time this month while healing from my gastrectomy to think about why I’m wired so weirdly.

Off the top of my head are three reasons for my reaction:
1. My faith
2. My work in organisational change
3. My philosophy about life in general

My faith
I am a Christian and I wholeheartedly believe that my God has a purpose for my life. The plan that He has for me is good, and that suffering and hardship is also a part of that plan for my spiritual growth in faith and faithfulness. Furthermore, I believe that while this plan is in action, my God does not abandon me to undertake the hardship on my own. In fact, He undergoes this journey with me, as well as sends people in my path to encourage and sojourn with me.

Nevertheless, I am not naive about how painful and tough going through cancer would be – if not for myself, but also for my family and loved ones.

Fifteen years ago, my Pa passed away from Stage 4 lung cancer when I was in my late-20s. The helplessness I felt when I saw Pa going into decline as his strength slowly failed, and as he relied more and more on his painkillers to ease his suffering, remains an indelible memory for me.

Yet, Pa showed me that God is good, and in His time, Pa gained the peace he sought. Pa was blessed with a happy and colourful life of love and friendship; he not only raised his daughter and son to adulthood, he was even a proud Ah Kong to my toddler son!

My work in organisational change
Apart from contributing articles to The Middle Ground, I work together with my husband Noel to help organisations and communities understand, navigate and adapt to change.

Some changes can be anticipated – we are able to see what’s coming on the horizon and plan for it. For organisations and communities, this may mean having to cope with new technologies on the horizon that may disrupt the way things work or consider what “new normals” would affect the way people in the organisation relate to one another.

On a more personal level, these may be the changes we can anticipate as a family: our children going to primary school next year, our ageing parents’ needs or even changes that we might face at work due to restructuring. Being aware of what’s on the horizon helps us prepare – whether this may mean moving closer to our parents or to the kids’ school, having to be more circumspect about our family expenditure to plan for the family’s growing needs, or having to prioritise our time for family and work.

While most people understand change as inevitable, perhaps the toughest changes are the ones no one can plan for. These are the sudden disruptions to the careful plans we make, simply because the environment we live in is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

So how do we help our clients with such disruptions?

We help our clients reframe these changes from a negative perspective to a positive one; from seeing the disruption as a “crisis” to one of “opportunities”.

We ask: How might this change be a good thing?

Once we use a positive frame, we are able to see possibilities. Following that, anticipation and enthusiasm usually help move the dialogue from a paralysing fear of the crisis to ways to surmount the challenge.

A cancer diagnosis is certainly a huge disruption. And depending on how the cancer presents itself, it may very well be challenging just to frame cancer as a positive change.

When my doctor told me I had stomach cancer, my habit of having a positive frame naturally led me to see this disruption as an adventure – to undergo a journey of new experience. Like all new experiences, I knew that it would mean new learning and a new area of growth for myself.

During this month of healing from my operation, I began to better understand the amazing possibilities this disruption has afforded me.

Since the operation, I’ve had a steady stream of visitors who brought much joy and laughter whenever they came to see me. I’ve repeated my cancer story to to them to the point my 8-year-old could end off my sentences. After sharing my story, we would spend the rest of the time playing catch-up about what’s been going on in each others’ lives. Sometimes, our conversation would turn sober – how a friend/parent/sibling was also undergoing medical treatments. During these times, we both take comfort in the fact that whether as a caregiver or a patient, we each have difficult journeys to undertake – one step at a time – and that we can support one another by just listening to each other’s stories.

Another area that opened up was the many messages, emails and visits from cancer survivors and cancer patients. They shared with me their cancer stories to encourage me on my journey.

Invariably, these are stories of how they are now more aware of the people around them, and how they were sustained through the cancer treatments by the support from loved ones and their faith. They share a story of appreciating time: time to live, love and be generous with the people around them. Their stories also offer a fascinating glimpse of how their cancer led them on a different path and purpose when they became cancer-free.

In an interesting way, cancer transforms and awakens those it touches.

Frankly, I have my cancer to thank for allowing me this time to sit at a pitstop, in order to appreciate the love of people surrounding me.

My philosophy about life in general
I hold my personal successes in life lightly.

That is not to say that I don’t give my best in everything I do – I do! After all, I am a born and bred Singaporean!

But unlike many Singaporeans, I don’t define myself by my successes or accolades that people give me.

When I became a mother, my willingness to relinquish my success as a school teacher allowed me the space to learn and grow to enjoy my new identity as a mother. Being unemployed gave me the opportunity to further my studies and gain a degree. I also had space to stumble into being an entrepreneur with my husband. We later stepped out of our success in the local school-enrichment space to explore different frontiers, which led us to work globally in the facilitation field. I relinquished my role as trainer/facilitator to pick up the markers and become a graphic recorder when my husband facilitated, and then I found myself working successfully in a wholly new element. Opportunities later arose for me to give back to the community by encouraging and mentoring other practitioners in my field.

It is not that I don’t struggle in relinquishing my successes. I am human too, so it is really hard to say goodbye to what you know you’re really good at, and to start from scratch at a new endeavour. It requires stepping out from an area of expertise to become the newbie, and it is extremely humbling to have to learn afresh – not to mention having to take time to tackle the learning curve.

However, I believe that when we hold tightly to our successes, it can be limiting to personal growth.

We become limited to what we are successful in, and become defined by what we are seen as good as. We are so good at what we do that we grow afraid of letting it all go, and spend a lifetime pursuing accolades to affirm our success in whatever fields we are in – sometimes, even to the detriment of our health and family. And when we do get those accolades we seek, it never seems enough, nor does it satisfy us the way we believe it ought to.

Success breeds an “expert” mentality where we believe there’s little left for us to learn. We dismiss possibilities and other ways of thinking, simply because our success and the way we got successful are the only lens we’ve worn. We wonder, “Why can’t other people be like us?” and discount that others walk in very different shoes from us, even if they hold similar hopes and values.

Joseph Campbell, the originator of the notion of the hero’s journey puts it best: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Perhaps because I have meandered much, I have learnt that whenever I allow myself to let go these hard-earned successes, I create space for something new to come into my free hands.

Thus, despite finding myself at an unexpected roadblock when things are going well, I can be cheerfully curious about where the path would lead. My interest is heightened, I itch to learn more, I want to see if I have solutions yet to be tried. I want to get better, and I want to share what I’ve learnt with all my family and friends, so that they can benefit from it.

Perhaps my weird wiring is what keeps me buoyant even as I am now awaiting for my chemotherapy treatment at the end of the month. I am immensely grateful that my faith, work and philosophy have come together to enable me to see my cancer as a opportunity for a different positive outcome – one that’s not just about getting well, but more importantly, one that will expand my horizon and allow me to make a positive impact on the people around me.

Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. Read her first piece, in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer, here.


Featured illustration by Natassya Diana

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