Innovative schemes are required to beat workplace stress if employers are to prevent Singapore’s productivity levels being damaged by increasingly worrying wellbeing issues, experts have warned.

The Singapore-based Centre for Effective Living (CEL), a company promoting the psychological wellness of organisations, said it had seen a 10 to 20 per cent rise in the number of clients from the public and private sectors seeking its help.

The company, listed under Singapore government’s health promotion board – an initiative supporting workplace wellbeing – currently supports 160 companies covering 60,000 employees, Phua Honghao, business development manager at CEL, told People Management.

Singaporeans usually put in longer hours than employees in the rest of Asia – even rivalling Hong Kong’s lengthy hours – but employees can report lower productivity. Singapore-based leadership institute Roffey Park’s Working in Asia 2017 research data (covering Singapore, Hong Kong and China) attributed this to stress stemming from a lack of work-life balance.

“Singapore clocked an average of 45.6 work hours per week in the first nine months of 2016, an average of 2,317 paid hours annually. That is more than Japan and South Korea,” said Alex Swarbrick, director of Roffey Park Asia Pacific. “It’s clear that simply working longer, ignoring the human impact, isn’t leading to business results,” he added.

More than three quarters (78 per cent) of Singaporean chief financial officers (CFOs) believe the stress levels of their staff will increase over the next three years, according to a Robert Half survey published in June 2017 which polled 100 Singapore CFOs in the financial sector. Some 56 per cent of respondents blamed it on workloads, 54 per cent on increased business expectations and 40 per cent on shorter deadlines.

“Stress for most of us doesn’t come from what we’ve done so much as what we’ve not done – too much work left at the end of the day, and the fear of the consequences of that,” said Swarbrick.

He praised Germany’s proposed plan to introduce a law that forbids working beyond 6pm – the point being that if people know they only have so many hours in which to do things, they will use those hours differently, and will be much healthier mentally.

Swarbrick’s advice is straightforward: HR professionals need to have “courageous conversations challenging the culture, challenging organisational norms, challenging particular leadership behaviours. And if the organisation is a bit bereft of humanity, wrap it in a business case,” he advised.

The nature of relationships and the organisational culture make a huge amount of difference at times of stress, he said. The tendency is often to “splinter and retreat into our own little groups, rather than help each other – and leaders are clearly critical in role-modelling the latter”. But HR has a role here, not only in developing leadership capability but also “ensuring that there is space for open and honest conversations that generate positive action rather than blame”.

Jeffrey Ng, director at Singapore-based recruiter Michael Page, agreed that organisational structure, as well as regular feedback sessions with top management to assess an individual’s workload and career progression, can help. For its part, Michael Page is obtaining the services of a third-party professional counselling service to provide round-the-clock support for employees.

Flexible working arrangements can help relieve workplace stress, Honghao added. Despite the Singapore government’s commitment to promote flexible working, employees have been hesitant to take up the offer for fear of what their coworkers and superiors might think, he said, adding that companies need to truly show their commitment to such initiatives. After all, reducing workplace stress levels “makes business sense because failure to do so will lead to burnout, turnover and low morale, which ultimately affects the bottom line of the business”, Honghao warned.

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