Tackling the stresses of the modern workplace

In recent years, the issue of work-life balance has come to the fore in Hong Kong and many other parts of the world.

Employers have realised that getting things right in that area improves all-round productivity and job satisfaction, not least by obviating the kind of physical and psychological problems among the workforce which can otherwise lead to absenteeism, general disaffection, and higher rates of staff turnover.

For Professor Siu Oi Ling, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Lingnan University, such developments, at the nexus of academic studies and real-world practicalities, have always held special interest.

Indeed, along with occupational stress and the psychology of safety, the question of work-life balance has been a prime focus for much of a more than 35-year career, which so far has seen her publish close to 90 journal articles, 28 book chapters, and be named as one the world’s top 2 per cent of most-cited scientists according to widely respected 2020 and 2021 reports by Stanford University.

“I walk the talk too,” says Siu, who is also the Lam Woo & Co Ltd Chair Professor of Applied Psychology and Director of the university’s Wofoo Joseph Lee Consulting and Counselling Psychology Research Centre. “I try to apply the theories and practices I explore as a scholar to find a good balance between my academic work, personal life and family life.”

In doing this, she suggests, according to M. Seligman (2011), the five key elements for success can be found in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

“To relax, I walk and stretch, listen to music, and enjoy cooking.” Siu says. “And I treasure interpersonal communication.”

For many workers, of course, the lack of face-to face interaction with colleagues and between supervisors and subordinates has proved particularly difficult during the last two-plus years of Covid restrictions.

“That can lead to social anxiety and perceptions of low social support,” Siu says. “Staff working from home have faced challenges and demands which can cause job burnout. [It is not surprising that] there have been more work-related mental health issues during the pandemic.”

In such times, though, she is ideally placed to comment and advise. Her original PhD thesis examined occupational stress among white- and blue collar workers in Hong Kong and mainland China. And, ever since, her research, publications and teaching have largely centred on workplace stress and recommended methods to anticipate, avoid and cope with it. Over the years, this led to many prestigious accolades, appointments and grants. For instance, Siu has served as a guest professor at both Beijing Normal University and Nanjing Normal University and been a keynote speaker at numerous high-profile national forums.

She has been invited to collaborate in the 24-nation studies on work-family conflict – a factor contributing to occupational stress. And she was one of the co-investigators for a project on work-family balance, which was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council and which has already seen papers produced for a number of top-tier academic journals. She was then awarded “Top 50” Overall Contributor to Work and Family Research by Work and Family Research Network in 2018. And in 2022, Research.com ranked her 23rd in Top Scientists in China in the area of Psychology.

Fortunately, there are now many good sources of research data in Hong Kong and mainland China, And, with all kinds of organisations seeing the need for a better understanding of what makes employees tick and how to get the best out to them, the funding for interesting new projects has continued to flow.

As a result, besides regular generous support and a 2021 Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship from the RGC, Siu has secured backing at various points from China’s National Natural Science Foundation, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Council (OSHC), the Women’s Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong.

Emphasising the practical aspects of her work, there have also been a range of special consultancy projects commissioned by the likes of the MTR Corporation, the Education Bureau and the Hospital Authority to identify what they could or should be doing differently to enhance overall staff performance and efficiencies.

“My recent research topics include the psychological, social and economic costs of occupational stress in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area,” says Siu, who was chief editor of the International Journal of Stress Management (an APA journal) from 2015 to 2020. “In addition, I continue to work on stress moderators in the workplace and, in future, I would like to explore the personal resources of individual employees in facing job demands, which involves areas like psychological capital, rational beliefs, and the growth mindset.”