How to help employees manage stress at work

Are leaders doing enough to support workers’ well-being?

How to help employees manage stress at work

Singapore is known for many things and unfortunately high levels of stress is one of them. Residents have had to deal with high-stress environments from young, with pre-nursery becoming more and more common amongst families today. That means, parents are getting waitlisted for pricey spots in schools for their toddlers who are barely two years old, just to make sure their kids don’t “fall behind” their peers. While the government has been trying to help society shift mindsets, a lot more needs to be done before the country gets better at managing their overall well-being.

Unsurprisingly, all of this translates into the working world. Year after year, Singapore has managed to top global and regional indexes that rate countries based on how stressed out life is for workers. It’s yet another competition that the city-state has managed to sweep annually – except it’s costing corporations billions to help individuals deal with consequences like deterioration of health, both mental and physical.

We didn’t need a pandemic to tell us how stressed out we all are, though it did take a crisis to remind us to reflect on our priorities in life and career. However unfortunately, the past year has also added a new facet to our pressurised lives with ‘pandemic stress’ becoming an additional issue to deal with.

Read more: Microsoft report reveals true state of pandemic stress

How stressed are your employees?

So this is the million-dollar question with a billion-dollar answer for bosses: how stressed are employees here? Cigna Singapore found that nine in ten felt stressed out at work. That’s almost every one in your team and this study was done pre-COVID to boot, sometime in 2019.

Almost one in eight employees said their stress was unmanageable. What’s worse, most go undetected as the survey found that only half (55%) showed signs or talked about their stress – suggesting they may be hiding it or were simply uncomfortable talking about it at the office.

ADP also found similar findings in December 2020. More than a quarter of employees here said they weren’t comfortable talking to anyone at work about their mental health. This is concerning as about 72% of employees said they experienced a spike in their stress levels at least once a week. Both figures were much higher than the average for the Asia Pacific region.

On the topic of ‘always on’ culture, ADP found that it’s a norm for a third of employees to spend around six to 10 hours of unpaid overtime weekly – something that's not only demoralising but can further exacerbate the stress contagion within organisations in the long run.

Read more: Burnout-related cases costing Singapore billions

Stress a silent killer at work – Can leaders help?

We spoke with Yvonne Teo, VP HR (APAC) at ADP to get some perspective on the issue and tips for leaders to help support employees. Right from the get-go, she shared some observations around why stress remains a major health crisis in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.

“We are very hard workers and ambitious,” Teo told HRD. “We do not want to show managers our ‘weaker side’. For example, you want to show your manager the best [version of] you. You want to be the highest performer.

“It’s the environment and background [we’re from]. It’s the way that we grew up. Even the school education system has sort of trained us that way: 'You have a personal problem – you solve it. Don’t bring it to the office.' So I guess it’s the whole [idea] that we’re a product of our environment, and it has actually brought us to where we are.”

Despite this, over the years she has noticed a positive shift in awareness and acceptance of mental health issues. She said studies have shown that while there has been a rise in reports around mental ill health, for example anxiety, more people are seeking medical help. Anecdotally, she has also seen a shift in the way Singaporeans talk about mental health.

“My children have told me that their classmates are undergoing therapy sessions,” she said. “Now I feel…it’s actually more open, people are now more aware.”

Read more: MOM launches digital tool to combat workplace stress

Steps to help employees manage stress

As we experience a gradual shift in attitude towards stress and mental wellness, be it in government, schools, or the society, there are always steps that leaders can take to help drive the culture in the right direction. The first step, like in most scenarios, is to lead by example, Teo said.

  • Leaders should walk the talk

It’s critical that you practise good habits in your day to day and communicate it with the team. This could be simple things like taking frequent breaks during your work day, having a proper lunch preferably away from your desk, or sharing what activities you liked to do to relax.

“I’ve actually got a new habit right now where I walk my dogs during lunch,” she said. “The manager’s involvement is very important to make sure that employees are also taking care of their own health. Because ‘if my manager can do it and it’s the right thing to do, then I will do it’.”

Read more: Should lunch breaks be mandatory?

  • Invest in and tell staff about the company’s EAP

Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) but fail to remind staff that they can tap onto the benefit. This is especially crucial for staff who aren’t comfortable speaking to teammates about their condition but are unsure about seeking medical help.

  • Connect with employees during regular check-ins

Everyone’s been talking about the importance of having regular check-ins, but Teo reminded that you must be show genuine concern for the individual beyond just work during these calls. This is how you develop a relationship with your team members and sustain a culture of trust.

“Right now people are working from home, so you have to have regular check-in calls,” she said. “These check-ins are not just about firefighting – it’s not just about talking about problems at work. But it’s now extended to, ‘how are you feeling?’”

Sustaining regular calls can help leaders build a connection as you get to know each other, whether it’s about your pets or your families, for example. As a regional leader, she makes it a point to have regular chats with both her direct and indirect reports. It’s helped her team build mutual trust.

She also makes clear that staff can always approach leaders for help even if they aren’t their managers. This creates an open environment and allows employees to speak with whoever they’re most comfortable with.

“When it comes to taking care of employees’ mental wellness, managers have to be very involved, and it’s not just talking when there are problems,” she said. “It actually takes a lot more effort now [with remote work], so you can’t wait until the end of the year to talk [during] performance appraisals.

“It’s also important that even when teams don’t meet, you [should] spend some time on a call just to catch up and maybe talk to one another to find things out.”

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