AFTER working long hours for 20 years in an advertising agency, Mr Koh Kuan Eng found himself asking what he wanted his life’s key performance indicators (KPIs) to be.
“I was getting on in age and could not see myself doing long hours and that kind of work stress as I navigate my 40s and beyond,” says the 46-year-old bachelor, whose last position was as a creative director.
“As I reflect on what I want to look back on my life on my death bed, I decided my KPIs would not be condominiums, cars and a million dollars in my bank account. It should be purpose and meaning.”
While family and friends were supportive, his career change puzzled a few counterparts in his industry, says Mr Koh, with one even asking if he had cancer. “He couldn’t make sense of my decision and thought a terminal illness had forced me to make such a drastic decision.”
Course in counselling
To qualify as a social worker, Mr Koh, who has a diploma in applied arts, took a diploma course in counselling from the Academy of Human Development, followed by a degree in social work from SIM University. He freelanced so he could choose the projects he was truly passionate about — group work and art.
He says: “Maybe it is my training in presentation and being comfortable with handling groups of participants that makes me good in this area of social work. Being able to relate to participants, to be sensitive to group dynamics, as well as a sense of humour, helps too.”
Mr Koh’s time is now mostly spent facilitating support groups for prison inmates and running workshops for the elderly at senior activity centres and Tiong Bahru Family Central.
Prison group topics can range from empowering inmates and their family members with knowledge and skills, enhancing family relationships or reconnecting inmates with family members. He also acts as an educator, counsellor and adviser on assistance schemes to the families.
For the elderly, Mr Koh conducts classes on fall prevention and dementia awareness. He also taps on his passion for art to teach them sketching, journal keeping, drawing and watercolour. The new skills they pick up allow them to boost their self-esteem, feel a sense of accomplishment and use it as a form of therapy, says Mr Koh.
In these classes, he engages participants through social interaction, and his strong grasp of Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese dialects often endears him to the elderly.
“I was initially unsure whether I could click with my participants but I found them to be fun and chatty,” he says.
His source of joy
From someone who used to shop to make himself happy, Mr Koh now finds joy in seeing prison inmates learn new skills and progress in their lives as well as making the elderly laugh.
He dismisses the idea that his advertising skills have gone to waste, saying he applies the same creativity in conceptualising programmes, planning activities and drawing up worksheets for his workshop participants.
In the advertising industry, he used to help a brand communicate with its target audience. Similarly, he now evaluates the demographics and psychographics of his beneficiaries to find out how he can relate to them effectively.
To those uncertain if social work is for them, Mr Koh’s advice is to take small steps first.
He volunteered for five years as a co-facilitator in prison support groups and went full-time only when he found it was something he enjoyed and excelled in. He adds that having empathy, a passion to help people and good interpersonal skills is also vital.
He says: “Social work is not an easy job, especially for those who need to handle cases, manage crises and do home visits. Most social workers will say it is a tough profession but very satisfying.
“I tell my friends I may be three times poorer but I am 10 times happier.”