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Time out! Don’t burn out

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Many leaders don’t recognise the signs of a stressed employee and employees often struggle to ask for help. How can employers and HR create working cultures that are highly productive and staffed by healthy and happy employees? Sabrina Zolkifi reports.

When it comes to health, we all know prevention is better than a cure. As an employer or in an HR role in charge of the development and happiness of hundreds of employees, we intrinsically know it’s best to do what we can to prevent health issues in the workplace – but we also know this is easier said than done.

When push comes to shove, companies locked in tight competition with rivals and fighting for top talent, bigger profits and constant innovation often find themselves working in the now, and not focusing on the future. Deadlines are tight, working hours are long and expectations are incredibly high.

All of this equates to a workforce prone to burnout. This is particularly true in Asia, where numerous studies have found employees feel obliged to stay late at the office and work on vacations – even though their productivity output rarely changes with the extra effort.

For this reason, companies such as Dell focus on starting at the beginning, before any ugly health and wellness issues get a chance to “infect” the office.

“The way we approach stress at Dell is that we don’t just manage it, but also try to prevent it,” says Shweta Mishra, HR lead at Dell Singapore, adding this includes providing employees the opportunity to work outside the office, so they can better manage their work-life balance.

“That minimises stress because they have control over how they spend their time.”

It also allows them to prioritise what’s most important to them at that moment, she says.

If companies are looking to implement flexible working as a form of employee wellness, she says it’s critical to get buy in from leadership, which is something she admits Dell struggled with initially.

“The primary concerns tend to be around how you manage employees’ time when they’re not working in front of you, and how to know if they are really being productive.”

But this is where performance management programmes come in.

“If there is a strong performance management system in place, everything is being measured according to outcomes and not based on how much time employees have put in,” she says.

“For companies that may not have mature performance management systems, the first thing would be to create one which is as objective as possible, and caters to a large variety of employees.”

However, she is also quick to acknowledge not every employee’s need can be met.

“It will never fit 100% – you may have roles which cannot be done remotely – but let’s not hold back the other team members who might be able to use these options.”

Another initiative Dell has put in place to encourage employee wellbeing is to provide training to team members to help them work more effectively in the time frame allocated to them.

“We also make sure they are competent to do what they need to, so there is less stress from that perspective.”

All for one

For paper merchant Spicers Asia, turning to Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) programmes has helped it create a healthy, supportive and safe work environment.

“Free health-related booklets and brochures on managing stress and HealthLine are displayed at designated areas to allow our staff to pick up a copy for their reading, and enhance their knowledge on managing stress,” says Phang Sian Chin, the regional MIS manager at Spicers Singapore, as well as the training and WHP facilitator for the company’s workplace safety and health committee.

“Workshops and talks on managing stress are also conducted in our activity room during certain lunch hours.

“We have also distributed a mouse pad to every staff featuring the 1800-Talk2Us hotline from the Health Promotion Board (HPB), which provides free confidential phone helpline support for people facing challenging situations.”

Dell also provides employees with a counselling hotline, but the calls remain anonymous. Mishra says Dell only receives a general overview of the stress areas employees bring up so it is “able to take action and prevent those situations from occurring in the future”.

The counselling calls are also extended to the employees’ immediate family members, which Mishra believes is critical in helping them manage their stress levels.

“The employee is not just working as a separate individual in the organisation. Their family’s support and stresses they might be undergoing are brought into their work, affecting their productivity levels,” she says.

The business of people

Aside from counselling calls and flexible working, Dell encourages staff to participate in employee resources groups.

“For example, we have a resource group for women. There are a lot of stresses that women go through because of various demands they may have from a personal and career standpoint,” she says.

Having these structured resource groups helps them create a network and support they can rely on.

“If they have challenges or don’t know how to approach something, they can talk to other women within the organisation who have managed those challenges.”

But with so many other business priorities, why should organisations bother, or even invest, in employee healthcare?

“Our employees are the organisation’s assets,” says Genevieve Chua, managing director of Spicers Asia. “We do our best to be supportive of employees’ concerns that will add up to their stress levels. We have also subscribed to access the online Healthy Mind Hub from HPB whereby the employees can create their accounts and perform self-assessments on their mental wellbeing.”

This is something Catherine Thia, regional manager for HR and corporate affairs at Pan Asia Logistics (PAL) Singapore, agrees with.

“Our business is a people business,” she says. “We strongly believe that healthy and happy staff are more productive, do better work and tend to stay longer with us.”

Similar to many other organisations, PAL places the responsibility of employee health on everyone within the company. At PAL, the management is responsible for the commitment to support work-life balance as a company culture, as well as establishing realistic performance in the respective business units.

“HR managers take the lead in providing the systems and structures to promote health and wellbeing in tandem with relevant performance benchmarks, while line managers are responsible to implement and employ these tools to better manage their teams,” Thia says.

Taking responsibility

However, this doesn’t mean employees are off the hook. They need to step up and also look after themselves.

Thia says PAL staff have a role and responsibility to “want to build up strong physical and mental health for themselves”, while at Dell, Mishra says employees go through a quarterly check-in with their direct managers, so they can see how they’re faring with their goals.

“It gives them a good checkpoint in terms of how they’re performing, and they don’t have to wait until the end of the year and stress about how their performance levels are,” Mishra says.

At Spicers, Phang says managers provide relevant feedback and on-the-job training to help employees with their workload. Staff are also encouraged to speak to their managers should their workload exceed their threshold.

The employees are also encouraged to call out to other fellow employees whenever they need help in their work.

Additionally, Spicers organises mental health-related talks during certain lunch hours, where trainers share different types of stressors and ways to prevent burnout.

Phang says it’s important to keep these programmes simple to follow, so employees are able to apply the lessons learnt without too much hassle.

For Thia, one way PAL has helped employees is by organising a health carnival to encourage healthy lifestyles and eating habits.

“We are currently in the planning stage to organise a mental health programme for our employees, with the aim to coach, engage and inspire our employees with new ways of managing the challenges they face in order to reduce stress as well as enhance performance,” she says.

But sometimes, stress management has to take place outside the office. For both Thia and Mishra, vacation time is a great way to de-stress.

“It’s very essential to take breaks at the right time. I try to take vacations as much as possible, and I try to stay away from work while on holiday,” Mishra says.

“I encourage my team members to do that as well. I feel when you really take a break, you come back really rejuvenated and become much more productive.”

Aside from vacations, Thia also makes a point to spend time with colleagues and friends after working hours by doing regular exercise and sharing and get-together sessions on a monthly basis.

“Ensure time is allocated to family and friends so as to balance the demands of home life and work,” she says.

“What may be daunting to an individual can always be overcome when people work together as a team, and managers have to set an example for others to follow.”

Case study: Pan Asia Logistics

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