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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