World Health Care Worker Week: Combating Stress with Martial Arts |

When it comes to stressful jobs, it’s safe to say that no other group of people have felt more pressure to perform than the medical frontliners. Especially during the pandemic, hospitals across Singapore have seen emergency rooms inundated with patients; doctors and nurses were testing positive for COVID-19, leaving behind fatigued coworkers who had to endure long shifts without pause.

This year for World Health Worker Week (April 4 – 8), we celebrate our frontline health workers who have undoubtedly been feeling the pressures of the ongoing pandemic. The impact of stress among health care workers is widely documented, but the good news is that stress is reversible and preventable.

While there are many ways to cope with stress, some of our healthcare workers are turning to martial arts to combat the increased pressure. 

Kicking the stress away

Taekwondo is a popular martial art which is known for its kicks, but it’s more than just for self-defence or competitions. Practising martial arts gives you a boost of “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins, so not only do you get a great workout, you also feel positive doing it.

J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (Bukit Timah) sees students from all walks of life, including medical frontliners like Catheryn Leong and Teoh Su Miang, both young nurses who’ve been practising Taekwondo for a year, as well as husband-and-wife doctors Mok Yee Ming and Lena Toh who are both black belters (second dan).

“I have faced many challenges in my career. One of the hardest was having to coordinate the COVID response. It has been almost a 24/7 job and has been going on for a long time,” says Dr. Mok (49), who adds that practising Taekwondo has been beneficial for him. “The increased fitness and flexibility have better helped me physically be able to remain alert longer. The focus required to learn the various forms has helped me improve my focus at work.”

Mok Yee Ming
Dr. Mok Yee Ming

Taekwondo has also helped Dr. Lena Toh (49) to improve her physical stamina to cope with her busy and stressful job. “It helps me relieve stress as it helps me to mentally detach from my work.”

For Catheryn (24) and Su Miang (24), Taekwondo allowed them to relieve their stress after a busy shift. “In nursing, we will encounter many different types of tasks, as well as dealing with different people. We are asked to maintain our emotional balance and always be ready to do our best for patients,” says Catheryn.

Both found striking targets with powerful punches or kicks therapeutic, and for Catheryn it was “a physical outlet for me to blow off steam.” Su Miang enjoys sparring the most: “Sparring trains my alertness, accuracy, speed. Exerting all my energy into a sparring session with my opponent is thrilling.”

Practising Taekwondo can help balance out all kinds of different emotions, whether it’s anxiety, anger, stress or frustration, making you feel both literally and figuratively more balanced in your emotional state. For Dr. Mok, “having a good workout helps me burn off the stresses and frustrations” while Dr. Lena Toh feels “mentally and emotionally better” and it spurs her to make time for it.

“I can regain my physical strength after a rest, but my mental health will need more care so that I can get back to my hectic life. Taekwondo helps me build up my physical and mental stamina to deal better with stress,” says Catheryn. 

The energy and confidence booster

Taekwondo, like most other martial arts, it’s a physically demanding sport, which means that practitioners will benefit from improved physical fitness and stamina. There’s another plus side to Taekwondo: even when you’re feeling lethargic, it can reignite your fighting spirit, giving you the will to pull through and fight.

For Su Miang, Taekwondo has taught her to be more resilient while facing difficulties: “During training sessions, our instructors will always encourage us to challenge ourselves to aim higher and higher for every kick. There are failures, but we are taught to be even tougher whenever we fall.” 

Teoh Su Miang

“Usually, it is actually exhausting after training, but I feel way more energetic the next day when I wake up,” says Catheryn. 

Taekwondo is also a good confidence builder. “I learned that it’s possible to improve my flexibility and my stamina despite my age, that I can still be mentally and physically young(ish),” says Dr. Lena Toh, who’s been practising Taekwondo for 6 years together with Dr. Mok who’s learned to “build self confidence and push perceived limits.” Both husband and wife are in their late 40s, proving that age is no barrier when it comes to excelling in Taekwondo.

Catheryn’s confidence comes from her instructors. “They have faith in us that we can do it better. A small compliment means a lot to me.”

Taekwondo has also made Su Miang a more confident person. “Taekwondo actually breaks down social boundaries and gender stereotypes which is the key factor that made me throw myself into martial arts.”

Striking a balance

With the hectic schedules of the medical frontliners, it’s no surprise that time management is crucial. Finding your stride in Taekwondo can feel empowering and validating, but what you get out of it depends on how much effort you put in.

Su Miang has to balance her time between work, study, training, and casual hangouts. “Despite my busy schedule, I will always try my best to attend classes at least twice per week. For me, I will take a nap and a proper meal to make sure I have enough rest before the class.” 

Both Dr. Lena Toh and Dr. Mok face the challenges of a demanding career as well as raising a family. “Taekwondo is something that fits into my lifestyle and enables me to function as a doctor and husband/father. I hope I can continue for as long as I can,” says Dr. Mok. Both of them signed up for Taekwondo as a family together with their son.

Dr. Lena Toh

It’s clear that from their experiences, practising Taekwondo gives them greater emotional stability, assertiveness, and self-confidence to do their best in their fields. As Dr. Lena Toh iterates, the field of martial arts and medicine are about “persevering through challenges and hardships.”

For Dr. Mok, there are definitely similarities between martial arts and the medical industry: “Discipline. Hard work. The need to focus. Respecting your teachers and colleagues. Teaching your juniors.”

Su Miang approaches it from a different mindset: “I think that dealing with people isn’t an easy job, especially when you need to communicate with different people with different backgrounds. So, I will apply a Taekwondo tenet which is respect: I will always remind myself that respect is always the most basic thing when it comes to social relationships.”

Taekwondo is more than just a martial art

When it comes to medical frontliners, it’s no surprise that those who feel highly stressed are more likely to make medical errors or have lower empathy towards patients. Martial arts can benefit those who feel affected by the stresses of their daily life, be they medical frontliners, teachers, office workers or students. 

What’s more, training with like-minded individuals creates a sense of camaraderie. Dr. Lena Toh enjoys the relationships between the teachers and students. “We’ve made some good friends at the classes. There’s always something to learn and there is always something to improve. That’s what I enjoy about it.”

Catheryn Leong

Catheryn was a wushu practitioner in secondary school, but switched to Taekwondo as an adult learner because there weren’t age restrictions. Because of the confidence she’s built, she’s decided to pursue a black belt (third dan) from her current green belt. “This achievement will be significant to my self image, which will help me in my future personal development.”

If you’re interested to see how Taekwondo can help develop your mental discipline and physical toughness, J H Kim Taekwondo Institute has four branches across Singapore – Bukit Timah, Toh Tuck, Sembawang, and Woodlands – where you can start your journey. While the needs of every individual differs, Taekwondo may be the best method for you to cope when presented with challenges or difficulties in life.