What you should know about mental health and the UAE workforce

Mild depression may be affecting up to 15 per cent of the UAE’s population



Let’s start with some numbers. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that one in four adults live with a mental or neurological disorder, and nearly two thirds do not seek treatment. The second number is particularly worrying because it means many people who could be treated, whose lives could be made better, are suffering alone.

A quick glance at history shows that we have had a very strange relationship with mental health right from the start. From all manner of ‘treatments’ that have been administered over the centuries, each more gruesome than the last, we now find ourselves in a place where knowledge and care have evolved but somehow talking about the subject is still taboo.

Why is it that many people are happy to share with others that they might be suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure, yet often depression and other mental health issues are not spoken about?

Since we spend a huge part of our time at work, we need to ask ourselves a tough question. Do people feel reluctant to share information about mental health issues because they fear repercussions in the workplace?

The importance of communication around mental health issues

Mental illness knows no borders. So here in the UAE, things are no different to the rest of the world. In fact, in this region, two of the top three causes of ill health are anxiety and depression. Figures suggest that as much as 4 per cent of the population could be clinically depressed, while mild depression may be affecting up to 15 per cent of the country.

However, since detailed UAE mental health statistics are difficult to come by, it’s not easy to accurately compare our region against global figures. But the fact that the information is not readily available points to the previously mentioned issue that sufferers are unlikely to be forthcoming with regards to asking for treatment, or even disclosing their condition to friends, family or employers.

That last word is important. Employers. It’s hard to examine the issue of mental wellbeing in the UAE without paying attention to the unique structure of the workforce in this country. Some 85 per cent of the population here are expats working away from ‘home’ and in conditions that may not be familiar.

A very large number of those expat workers are also separated from their families and/or come from very poor backgrounds, may be uneducated, and are perhaps without foreign language skills.

Add to that the fact a number of workers may not be able to handle long and intense hours, may not be getting enough exercise, or eating a healthy diet, and all the pieces are in place for workers to become isolated, exhausted and feel that they cannot speak about what they are experiencing.

A survey from 2013 reported that an incredible 60 per cent of residents in the UAE felt some degree of stress and their employment was cited as the main cause of this. The inability to maintain a good work-life balance due to the demands of their job was named as a major cause.

Also read: 42% of UAE employees find workplace stressful – report

And there’s another serious issue: Growing addiction to alcohol or prescribed medications is often masking underlying mental health issues – for example, the rate of absence from work can be indicative of a staff member struggling to cope in this area, and this is something employers should understand.

Is the European model suitable for the UAE?

Let’s start with what Europe has done on this issue, then move on to the steps the UAE is making.

It’s widely considered that the world leaders in mental healthcare are in Europe. Denmark, voted the happiest country on Earth in 2013, has a universal health system that has an organised and extensive approach to mental health care. Since 1969, the Danish have recorded all psychiatric treatments – this information has shaped the way the country approaches mental health care. Both Germany and the UK are also strong on this issue, with long-term, progressive commitments to mental health that elevate in society the position of people suffering from these issues.

So in the UAE, known for taking best-practices from abroad and adapting them for local use, the mental health challenges are clear: Existing psychiatric healthcare services need expansion and structure, and the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be addressed to form a society that is more accepting of mental conditions in general.

Employers too have a part to play – it’s not always easily done within the commercial world, but efforts should be made to create an environment in which employees feel secure, comfortable and able to disclose a mental health issue condition.

Breaking down the stigma associated with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia is going to take time, but it’s an important step. And we shouldn’t forget: With any physical condition, it’s more effective from a cost and health perspective if an issue is addressed as early as possible. Mental health is no different. The sooner, the better, the cheaper.

Also read: Why UAE companies must address mental health issues

This is not to say that great work in the UAE isn’t already underway. What we are finding now are strong steps forward in our region in terms of what employers are offering. Some now have helplines open 24/7 for staff (and their immediate family) to talk to counsellors, psychologists and other experts when they feel under stress or are struggling with the pressures of living apart from family and friends.

Technology is leveraged to deliver this service either via phone or internet if face-to-face is not convenient. In addition to access to well-qualified psychologists in the workplace, there are also growing employee support networks in the UAE – all of this aiming to maximise employee health and happiness. This in turn is good for everyone as it drives down rates of absenteeism and maximises productivity.

Alongside psychological counselling, there are a number of other areas of best-practice we are starting to see emerge from UAE employers. These include offering on-site nutritional information, corporate discount cards to activity centres and healthy eating facilities, as well as exercise workshops and classes. By also focusing on physical health and tying it into mental health, the employer is helping employees on both levels at once.

Putting theory into practice

According to a 2015 study in Psychology International, there are not enough mental health specialists to cover the number of patients in the UAE at the moment, nor is the system sufficiently regulated. Meanwhile, simply importing Western-styles of psychology may also not be the solution, so some serious work here is required to take it out of its initial phase of development. The plight of migrant workers with regards to mental health must also continue to be a priority in this area.

But there is no doubt that there have been improvements when it comes to the treatment of mental health in the UAE. Only a few years ago, if someone needed specific or urgent care they were likely to travel abroad to get it. With an ever-growing population to serve, more clinics and hospitals have now opened, along with an increase in mental health services. Today, there are greater numbers of trained specialist staff and better facilities – but further growth in this field is needed.

If we can get to a place where the best-practices mentioned above – whether 24/7 helplines, at-work psychologists, and support for alcohol addiction – become the norm, then the UAE will rightly be able to call itself a leader in the area. Because the UAE has the potential to transform how it deals with mental health – not just at home, but at the workplace as well.

Mark Adams is the founder and CEO of Anglo Arabian Healthcare