Assoc Prof Phua Ghee Chee (left) is determined to bring staff wellness to the forefront at SingHealth

“Daddy, your new job sounds kinda fuzzy… What exactly is “wellness” and what are you going to do?” Assoc Prof Phua Ghee Chee recalled the words of his daughter when he shared about his new role as the first Chief Wellness Officer at SingHealth.
“Many colleagues are not sure what ‘staff wellness’ is all about and I can see why, as this was certainly not something we used to talk about in healthcare”, mused the clinician, who was the former Head of the Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) before he took on this new portfolio. 

Not only does it appear to be an abstract concept, wellness is also multi-dimensional, deeply personal and seemingly hard to achieve. However, Assoc Prof Phua, who has served for more than two decades in SGH, is determined to make staff wellness a focal point in SingHealth. It is after all, a cause that is close to his heart, especially after leading the cluster’s COVID-19 ICU response over the past three years.
The pandemic was unexpectedly drawn out. Long hours, high workload and uncertainties brought about by the volatile situation led to inevitable exhaustion and even burnout amongst many healthcare colleagues – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and administrators alike. 
“After losing friends and colleagues in the SARS outbreak, we were determined to suffer no casualties this time. As a result, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform each task perfectly,” he recalled.

It didn’t help that measures to prevent the spread of infection amongst staff, such as safe distancing and team segregation, reduced opportunities for interaction and emotional support between colleagues. 

Even Assoc Prof Phua wasn’t infallible to the stresses and fatigue brought about by the prolonged pandemic. His wake-up call came when a close friend shared an observation of the way he was working amidst the pandemic. “He told me that although I was still doing my job, I had lost my warmth and became joyless. I realised the heavy toll the pandemic had taken on my well-being and I was suffering from burnout.”

Assoc Prof Phua’s candid sharing reflects his hope for more healthcare workers to open up about their personal struggles so that others around them are inspired to do the same.
“As healthcare workers, our sense of mission is very strong. We want to care for as many as we can and do our best for every patient. We feel that we should be invincible and not readily admit when we are tired or down. That shouldn’t be the case – we are only human and need to ask for help when we are overwhelmed,” he said.
When encouraging colleagues to voice their need for support, he is, in tandem, setting the foundation for change. His first step? Listening.
Assoc Prof Phua is supported by the SingHealth Staff Wellness Office as he embarks on his mission. He also recently set up the SingHealth Staff Wellness Council – comprising leaders and representatives across Singhealth Institutions and professional groups, such as doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and administrative colleagues.

Together, they are aggregating sentiments from the ground, devising ways and initiatives to promote well-being and transform the culture of staff wellness within the healthcare cluster. They also hope to support colleagues who wish to lead wellbeing-related activities.

There is much ahead of him, but one of the tasks at the top of Assoc Prof Phua’s to-do list is to eliminate abuse and harassment of healthcare workers. 

In the long run, he is also looking to eradicate the stigma associated with speaking up about mental health. “We need to have more conversations about it, at all levels and across all professional groups in the SingHealth family”, he said.

He is now walking the talk by taking ownership of his own well-being amidst his busy schedule. His self-care rituals include binging on Korean dramas, walking his golden retriever Miso and listening to guided meditation tracks on YouTube and mindline.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. It is very important for everyone to be aware of the importance of self-care and practise it actively so as to top up your emotional cup. Only then, can you take care of the people you care about,” he said.
Whilst it is early days yet for his new role, Assoc Prof Phua is clear on his vision, “We will succeed in building a culture where the well-being of our staff is the highest priority. I am confident that SingHealth will be recognised as a warm and happy place for everyone to work in”.