Leadership & talent

Tackling workplace stress in Asia

28 December 2016 by Alywin Chew

In the recent 2015/2016 Staying@Work Survey by Willis Towers Watson, employers from Asia Pacific cited stress as the leading workforce risk in the office. This was followed by lack of physical activity, being overweight or obese, tobacco use and lack of sleep.

Companies in Asia have recognised that workplace stress is a significant issue that they have to address. According to the survey, a third of companies in the Asia Pacific have a health and productivity (H&P) strategy, while a vast majority - 83 percent - of the companies surveyed plan to implement such a strategy by 2018.

Experts have said that it is imperative that organisations do more to help their employees cope with workplace stress. After all, studies have shown that stress will inadvertently affect an employee’s mental well-being and physical health, which subsequently affects productivity.

The survey also found that employees had indicated on-the-job stress was a main contributor to absenteeism in the office, with highly stressed employees averaging 4.6 sick days in a year, as compared to 2.6 days for those with low stress levels.

The results of this study is further backed by another research done by the UK government in 2014 which states that having a work-life balance helps in increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism and improving staff retention rates in the workplace.

In need of a holistic approach to stress management

Dr Rajeshree Parekh, director of health and corporate wellness for Asia and Australasia at Willis Towers Watson, told HRD Singapore in an interview that “reactive” measures, such as counselling sessions, are presently the most common form of measures in Asia, and that companies need to adopt a more holistic approach to stress management.

While wellness initiatives differ across organizations, the key is to enable an environment in which employees feel supported and are influenced in a positive way. 

A number of organisations in Singapore have embarked on a more holistic approach by incorporating “proactive” measures beyond support recovery, involving the active participation and promotion of wellness initiatives supported by management. From shorter workdays to in-house mindfulness programmes, employers in Asia are embracing a wide variety of initiatives to support their staff psychological wellbeing.

For instance, employees of public relations company Word Of Mouth Communications get to leave the office at 1pm on the last Friday of each month, while over at local banks such as OCBC and DBS, staff get to leave the workplace between 60 to 90 minutes earlier every Friday.

Proactive initiatives can be also seen in companies such as Infineon Technologies Singapore, which has been rewarding staff who take part in fitness activities with points that they can use to exchange for sports-related merchandise and fitness classes.

Another example can be found at Google’s Singapore office where employees are given access to “mindfulness programmes” which help individuals to relax and focus better. There is even a meditation room in the company’s Marina View office.

In other parts of Asia, Park Chun-woong, the president of human resource agency Staffs in Seoul, sends flowers to the parents of his workers and ensures employees take part in a laughing ritual in the office every morning to lift spirits.

In Thailand, employees of Lion, a Japanese beauty and healthcare brand, are also encouraged to participate in meditation sessions at the workplace. They are also provided with services such as health, marriage and financial counselling. 

Such measures looked to have boosted happiness in the workplace, with a Lion company official telling the Nikkei Asian Review that these initiatives have resulted in the internal employee happiness index rising from 6.92 in 2011 to 7.62 in 2014.

Parekh added that human resource departments can also play a part by being more transparent about issues such as compensation, job scopes and ensure that employees are exposed to a positive work culture and enjoy strong team support.

“To increase a strategy’s chance of success, it is important to view it holistically and offer interconnected programmes, rather than offering individual programmes that don’t have the same overall goal,” said Dr. Parekh.

“Implementing health and productivity programmes without having an overarching strategy will have limited success in changing employee behaviour in the long run.”

Benefits of addressing workplace stress

While it is still difficult to determine the exact benefits of such programmes – Towers Watson discovered that less than 10 percent of companies in the Asia Pacific measure the impact of their initiatives – research has shown that employers generally stand to gain long-term savings.

The Staying@Work Survey highlights that there exists a strong connection between companies that rank high in the Overall H&P Effectiveness (OHPE) index and good financial results. When comparing companies that have effective wellness programmes with those that don’t, the former were 50 percent more likely to report lower turnover rates and 50 percent higher revenue per employee.

In addition, a study conducted by the University of Warwick in 2014 found that the productivity levels in employees who are happy tend to be 12 percent higher than others.

Employers looking for hard facts and figures to justify the spending of resources on wellness programmes for their workers could also refer to an analysis by a non-profit research institute Rand Corp, which showed that companies earn an overall Return On Investment of US$1.50 for every dollar that is invested in such programmes.

From cost savings to a boost in productivity to higher talent retention rates, it is clear that companies can only benefit from catering to employees’ physical and mental well-being. 

The way forward now would be for more organizations to acknowledge this fact and be willing to actively develop a health & productivity strategy with their staff in mind. After all, a stress-stricken employee who is unable to perform is as good as not having one at all. 

Edited by Liew Hanqing & Tan Yi Xuan