The Case for Employee Wellbeing

Learn about the employee wellness programme organised by A*STAR

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A*STAR has been running an employee wellness programme since 2015. We find out how it came about, and what obstacles and misperceptions continue to dog better employee wellbeing. Transcripts have been edited for clarity and language.


Host: Douglas O’Loughlin
Audio: Fei

Douglas: Hello and welcome to the Challenge Podcast where we discuss all things public service in Singapore. I'm your host, Douglas O'Loughlin, an organisation development consultant and a former public officer.

In this episode, we are happy to have with us a public officer who has a rather unusual job title. He is Head of Infuse, an office that champions employee wellbeing at the Agency for Science Technology and Research, or A*STAR.

Douglas: Hiroshi Limmell. Welcome to our podcast. Thanks for coming over. How are you doing today?

Hiroshi: I'm great. Thank you for inviting me. I'm just so excited to be here.

Douglas: Your organisation, A*STAR, has created this programme about wellness. How did you get into that? And how did A*STAR decide to make that an area to focus on?

Hiroshi: I think many organisations in the Public Service are already doing wellness. What I can say for A*STAR, at least, is that I think what we have done is quite extraordinary.

We started looking at wellness for the whole organisation about five years ago. And we know that HR has always been the focal department that deals with wellbeing, wellness, employee welfare. But increasingly, we are seeing a lot more complex integration of all these functions by the Health and Safety Department, by the organisational development department. And I think moving forward, it's just logical to integrate and merge all this so that everyone can work together in harmony and in a coordinated manner. And I guess it is the right time to look at wellness, from an organisational standpoint.

I was very lucky to have Mr Suresh Sachi, who is the Deputy Chief Executive of A*STAR. He was really the sponsor for this entire wellness programme. And he just said to me one day, why don't you go and do something for staff? It was very open and very general, and he was not looking at a specific goal or aim. He was just saying, let's start something small and see where it goes. And this was five years ago. So that's how we started.

Douglas: I guess the two programmes that I've heard about is Infuse and you have something like a COP. Maybe talk a little bit about those?

Hiroshi: COP is Communities of Purpose or Communities of Practice. And it is just an idea of a community with a certain common morality. And you build a community around supporting people with that common interest. At Infuse, we started off with parenting because besides being employees of A*STAR, we are mothers, fathers, we’re also daughters and sons, and to some of our mainstay staff, grandparents. Fifty per cent of the time, we are working, and the rest of the time is our personal life.

When we have a parenting Community of Purpose and parenting talks, we help staff who are very busy working to find out more about the latest in the parenting field. As it is, there is no guidebook on how to be a parent, and there are different styles of parenting.

What we do is we bring in the experts in the schooling system. We have a counsellor who has been a family counsellor for many years. And she shared with us the tribulations of being a parent as she has five children. Some are academically inclined: you just leave them and they swim. But you also have those that traditional parents find problematic: they're not great at their studies but they excel at dance, arts, something that's less traditionally academic.

So for the counsellor, it took time for her to come to terms with it. And by being vulnerable and open about her own experience, being a mother to a child who's not academically inclined, it helped the staff say, oh, my kid is not academically inclined but yet, there is a pathway for them to grow. And it inspires and encourages the staff to say, I'm not alone in this, I feel supported. And that really is the basis of COPs.

Douglas: And a question out there about COPs, and I get asked this question all the time, is how do we sustain our communities of purpose?

Hiroshi: A lot of the time we see programmes like these start but they fail to sustain themselves. And you are right to ask this question, because when we started our first few programmes, it was a big bang. One of them was in sports, where we had a futsal match. And we went to focus on one of the most simple health activities, which is exercise. So we encouraged people to play futsal. We had this competition and it was fantastic.

But we soon realised that a lot of our scientists and staff are in their 30s and some of them are in their 40s. You can imagine the level of excitement when they joined the futsal team. They were playing like 18-year-olds, without the bodies of 18-year-olds. At the end of each futsal match, we were bandaging and giving first aid to everyone. They enjoyed themselves, but because of that slight change of biological age or pace, we decided that maybe we should do something a little simpler and less strenuous.

So finding the right kind of purpose is important to sustain it. We speak to the staff at the end of events and ask them what they found interesting or not interesting. And I tell my staff every time that we do not look for compliments, but criticism. Because through criticism, we would know what to improve.

Finding out which feedback fits with the overall mission of creating COPs is what is important to sustain it. And it is less a skill and more of an art. Because active listening skills are very important here, we pick up on the nuances. I find that in Singapore, when people give negative feedback, it's either they boom at you, or they say it in such a nuanced way that you don't get it right.

Douglas: So which of the COPs are most sustainable?

Hiroshi: Mindfulness, we have a mindfulness COP. And we do it every Tuesday. Now we do it on Zoom. We have trained staff who guide people on how to do a mindfulness session. That's really incredible. Because we started out not knowing what mindfulness was five years ago. One of the staff was doing one of these active listening sessions and they said, oh, staff feel very stressed. And they need some way of clearing their minds. So I asked her, what could we do? And she said, oh, try mindfulness. I asked her, what is that? And she suggested I attend a mindfulness session to understand what it is.

So I looked around for mindfulness classes, and paid for them with my SkillsFuture credits. I did not want to use the company's money for something I had little knowledge of.

Douglas: Thank you, SSG!

Hiroshi: Thank you, SSG. Indeed. I did the foundation and intermediate programmes. Then I did MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) and MBSR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction). These are amazing programmes that are from [University of] Oxford, as well as Massachusetts [Institute of Technology].

And it's completely secular. When I introduced it at A*STAR, people had a lot of questions about what it is. Is it a religious practice? Is it Buddhist, or is it Hindu? And we need to be very mindful about people’s sensitivities, and also where the development is in understanding mindfulness. Besides active listening, I think sensitivity to sentiments on the ground is very, very important.

We keep telling people, it's a secular practice. If you want, come try it out for 30 minutes. If you have any questions, we have a professional mindfulness instructor to answer your questions. And we focus on the physical, really, because when someone does mindfulness, they literally feel the body relax. If one is feeling stressed, they feel very closed. If you want to work with people and if you are in a bad mood, very likely, you are not going to say, oh, I am like your best pal, you know. You are going to hide in a corner or snap at them. And there is a biological and psychological basis to this.

What mindfulness does is it resets things. It makes you feel you are in a sea of calm. Where the sea was very choppy before, you sit there for five minutes, close your eyes, open your eyes, without really thinking about anything. And you just ride the waves of chaos, literally. And then you feel so much calmer, and you can focus more.

We have a lot of regular people that came to the mindfulness sessions. And we realised that, hey, this is a little bit of me, my budgeting coming out. If I hire a mindfulness instructor every week to come it is going to cost me so much. But what if we are able to train our own staff, people who know the labs and their own peers, what they need, what kind of problems they feel? They would be able to relate better.

And we can have our own self-sustaining practice as well. Because at the end of the day, if the budget for this practice runs out, what's going to happen to it? Are we just going to drop it? I feel it is incredibly irresponsible.

To sustain this effort, we need to encourage and groom our local employees who are inspired for our purpose to do this thing. We have about seven mindfulness facilitators, and they are so passionate about it. I'm just so proud of them.

Douglas: So we talked a bit about the COP part. How about Infuse, can you tell us about the structure and how it works?

Hiroshi: Infuse is really like a skunk group as they call it in organisational thinking. It's a small team. We report directly to the Deputy Chief Executive who basically gives us broad missions to complete. Then we go on the ground and work with amazing people from HR, from Organisational Development, from Health and Safety, as well as with IT and other corporate functions, and just tell them the purpose for what we want to do.

One would think we would meet a lot of resistance and a little bit of query. But amazingly enough, when you tell them it's really for the welfare of people like you and me at A*STAR, I can tell you, the amount of help you get is tremendous. Everyone at A*STAR, at the end of the day, loves to help one another. This is something I learnt at Infuse, that at the end of the day, people want to help people. And we should tap into that common love.

Douglas: Well, that's a very good tip because I do think most people struggle to ask for help, right? Because they see it as weakness and all that but when you flip it, you see that people actually want to help. Do you have specific programmes?

Hiroshi: When we started out, we started small with just talks, workshops and really low-hanging fruit. I think it is important to curate and make these sessions very specific for the staff in mind. And the value of this is when staff attend these workshops, which have been specially curated, they would leave feeling so much more productive, so much more educated, so much more informed. And I think it is time well spent.

We have seen an increase in the number of people who have attended our Infuse talks from a mere five or 10. Now we sometimes have 100, and a lot of them are regulars. Now, if I were an event organiser, and if I hold an event, and if I get regulars who come every week, I think we have what we can call a church of wellness.

Douglas: Listening to and looking at you, I’m wondering if this is something of a dream job for you?

Hiroshi: For our internal staff at A*STAR, they say, I love what you do there, it is my dream job. And I feel that this is my dream job. But in reality, one needs to have a thick skin to be in this job. I'm not going to say, oh, it is so difficult, you know, I'm such a great person. A lot of it is about the need to convince people.

An example would be the other day. I was just saying how we should focus on the mental health of staff when we assess risk. And I had someone come up to me and ask, what does mental health have to do with risk, work risk? And I said, well, we are not living in the Industrial Age anymore. We are no longer working machines that will cut off limbs. Stresses, anxiety and burnout are real problems for our staff. And we need to update our risk assessment matrix.

The person then says, well, you know, we are not that progressive. But I said, well, I beg to differ because based on what I hear from management, they are very progressive in the way they look at things. They are very forward-looking. I speak to people on the ground and they have huge dreams of where they want to take A*STAR. And I said maybe what we are saying here is a bit of acknowledgement, a bit of that face-saving thing.

For example, I understand you have been doing this for many, many years. This is the way that we have been doing things and it has worked. The important thing is what's next? I think that fear of doing something different holds us back from doing something that is really amazing.

Douglas: So given all that, even after five years, to still find misperceptions and challenges to introduce this idea of wellness and all that, is it still a bit of an uphill battle? Sorry, I shouldn't use that metaphor. But you know, is it still difficult to get this kind of work to be an accepted part of the culture? Or is it already there?

Hiroshi: You use the right word. It is a battle. To say that for any organisation to easily change a culture is sheer lies. Because if one goes there and tries to change a person’s mind, whether it is your staff or a supervisor, it is difficult. And it is not just at A*STAR, it is not just in the Public Service, it is in all organisations. But I think the important question to ask is: Why is there resistance to change?

Many people, especially young officers, like me, say, oh I wish we could be something else, I wish we could be something new and bright and shiny. But then we have people who hold us back and say, oh we should not change this, because we have been doing this for so long. In the job that I am in, the question is balance. How much of what we want to be can be achieved realistically, in the next year or so? And how much of what has been done and worked for us can we actually keep?

To understand what we can retain, it is constantly about what I call resistance, because a lot of people say that they are afraid of change. And by addressing that fear, I think it gives people the courage to move forward.

I mean, in counselling or psychology, the important thing when you face difficulties is technology. And if a boss or a colleague is resistant to certain new initiatives, I think the important thing for supervisors to say is, I acknowledge it is scary. It is scary to change. And not just say it because they want to say it, but really feel it and give examples.

We are changing our area of, for example, research. It is painful and it is not easy. And why is it not easy? Why is it painful? If they can drill down to the very detail of why it is painful, the staff will listen and feel you have something in common with them. Then you provide solutions: why don't we change to something new, something different? Give them examples that they can execute, to do A, B and C, and not effect a 180-degree change, and try it together.

Douglas: Hiroshi, I have a question that's on my mind a lot these days but have not really gotten any satisfactory answer to. And a lot of people, a lot of leaders are asking me this as well. There is all this talk about mental health and the need to take care of people, having them take time off, etc. At the same time, there is work to be done, deadlines and KPIs to meet. Even if you want to be nice to one person and say, yes, take a few weeks off or even no-pay leave, that person’s work will land on someone else who might already be overloaded.

How do we take care of people, nurture them and let them have time to take care of themselves while also getting the job we need to do, done? Have you been able to make sense of that since you're looking at wellness for the organisation?

Hiroshi: Yes, that's a very good question. Because I think that that dilemma, is in people's minds, especially as they go higher up the management ladder. I have two insights into this. One is mindfulness. I think the trait of being mindful in how one feels about what they are thinking and what they are feeling is important. Sometimes, I see bosses who give comments do it – to put it in not so many words – quite mindlessly. They have a certain idea that they want to share, but how is it put across? For staff, sometimes it feels like a lack of empathy and understanding. And it's not because the person who is giving the comment is unfeeling and cruel, it is quite the opposite. It is because there are so many things that they need to think about, sometimes their mind is so bogged down with changing from this topic and trying to manage another topic within a second that they just want to get the thing done.

For officers who feel a lack of acknowledgement or believe their bosses do not know what they do, they should ask themselves: Is the boss saying things mindlessly? And if so, how am I to react? Because at the end of the day, I don't think it would reflect very well on me and on my appraisal if I go to my boss and criticise them and say they are unfeeling.

Because it is very likely I would be worried about a bad appraisal. I mean, that's the reality for any workplace. What we can do is be mindful that perhaps this person is very busy, and be mindful of their personal style. Everybody has different personalities, and everybody has different roles and different ways of thinking. But I feel that we must all allow each of us to play our roles.

If a boss is very strict, and you have been working with this person, understand the characteristics of this person. Take away from the comments what they are trying to say to improve the situation. Take away the emotions and focus on the facts: What is the suggestion? And be mindful about your own reactions: Am I triggered by something? Am I being too emotional? Am I being belittled? All these are really emotions, and they are not things that we do logically to solve the problem. And I think it makes work so much easier if we just take the main context of the suggestion and focus on it. It is easier said than done.

The other one is patience. Singapore has such a fast-paced life. We speak like machine guns shooting off, and there are so many things to distract us. Sometimes we just need to slow down and take the time to look back. And really contemplate what was said and what was done in a non-judgmental state.

Douglas: I know these terms get thrown around a lot: mental wellness, mental health, and overall wellness. How would you describe them?

Hiroshi: Yes, I think a lot of people use them interchangeably. Mental health, mental wellness, and even holistic wellness. When I talk to people about wellness at A*STAR, they would ask, oh, what kind of spa are you going to? Are you going for a spa retreat somewhere?

Douglas: Yes, that word gets misinterpreted.

Hiroshi: And if you look at jobs where they say “wellness officer”, you will find a facial therapist or a masseuse. So you are right, there is a very wide and broad interpretation of what wellness is.

Let’s look at a scale of the concept of wellbeing to be from minus five to plus five, and in the middle, you have zero. Mental health, I see as a scale that runs from the minus spectrum to zero. So we're talking things like people who are depressed, have OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), anxieties. They need a little bit more time and support to bring them up to zero, which is where people feel normally.

Douglas: Can I just sneak in on that? So one of the words that get thrown a lot in the COVID-19 days is “languishing”. Would you say it fits into that?

Hiroshi: Very insightful, yes. One would be languishing when they are having poor mental health.

Douglas: So you are not at your best.

Hiroshi: Exactly. The opposite, I would think, of languishing, is flourishing. So if one were flourishing, one would be at zero on the scale, and be super happy, when they go plus one, two, all the way to five.

And I think that's where we are at in Singapore. We have done so much to look after the mental health of people. But what are we going to do to support their mental wellbeing? How do we bring them from feeling, meh, you know, it's just a normal day to, wow, I'm just so happy today? Of course, people in Singapore, being Asian, would look at this and say, oh, this is all very soft and all very touchy-feely. I come from a generation or a family that is a bit more “tough love”.

But from my experience, if you give someone a compliment, you appreciate them, thank them and show gratitude, a hundred percent of the time, that person will always come back positive, right? They would not ask, why are you complimenting me?

Douglas: What you described before about flourishing – I guess that is also wellness?

Hiroshi: Yes. In positive psychology, “flourish” was actually coined by…

Douglas: Martin Seligman!

Hiroshi: That's right. So he wrote this book, and it's called Flourish. And it's amazing because what he is championing is how do we make lives better.

So now, the question is what are we going to do to enrich people's lives to make them happier? And I think if you ask anybody, do you want to be happy, 100% of the time, they would say yes. So why not do it?

Douglas: Let's flourish! Let's go through some of those key ingredients, just to make this practical. I think if I recall, some of them are about having gratitude, being in service, connecting your sense of purpose. Any others you can think of?

Hiroshi: Yes, I have one tip and I find it very useful when I write emails. I used to write emails in a very straightforward manner. Do I have this? Do this thing, I have this information, and this is it. Signed, Regards, Hiro.

Now, I write emails in a different way. Whether it is a comment, whether it is sharing information, or whether it is criticism or feedback, I always start off thinking, what is it about the person I am sending this email to that I can compliment? And it is not just about being polite. That is very blasé and honestly, people can see through it.

We look at how we give a compliment. There is always something about the recipient you can thank. And honestly, without that person, I would not be able to do my job. In a way, there is a reason why I thank people. And that is what we want to see when people read our emails, whether it is feedback or a negative comment. If they can smile and say, I understand your pain. Let me see what I can do to help you.

Douglas: Even within that comment that you just made, every email, every WhatsApp message is a chance for us to convey gratitude, care and connection, right? So every day we have many chances to do that to help each other flourish.

So we have talked mostly about what you do, what A*STAR does and the topics of wellness. What about your journey, because you could not be in this job now, or over the last few years, unless you already had the “being-ness” to step into it this way? That is my belief anyway. I mean, this is not something anyone can do. As you said, the thick skin, the bright light, the passion for this. So what is it about your life journey or career journey that enabled you to step into this space, and as it seems, in a pretty amazing way?

Hiroshi: I always make a point to thank the people that I have learnt from. I started at Channel NewsAsia and went into public relations agencies. I have always been in communications and then went in-house.

At each lap, I have always admired and learnt from mentors. When I hear people speak about how great they are, it bores me. But when they say, you know what, I'm actually nothing if not for my mentors. Now, that is someone I want to hear from because gratitude is a form of authenticity to know where I am.

Douglas: Any final words of wisdom for our listeners?

Hiroshi: Just be authentic. That's the key thing. Life is too short to hide and pretend to be something else. Just be who you are. Be respectful. Be mindful, and most importantly, be yourself. Because it's so dreadful to be someone else or pretend to be someone else for so many years. And at the end of your life, you just realise that's not who I am.

Douglas: I think it was Lily Tomlin who said, you might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken. Just be authentic. Thanks again, Hiroshi, for being here.

Hiroshi: Thank you very much.

Douglas: Thank you for listening to this podcast. I’m your host Douglas O’Loughlin. Follow us for new episodes, and follow for more public service stories.

To hear more conversations like this, follow the Challenge Podcast on Spotify.

    Dec 2, 2021
    Keval Singh
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