Mental wellbeing is key to ensuring a productive workforce. Here’s why.
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Mental wellbeing is key to ensuring a productive workforce. Here’s why

Mental wellbeing is key to ensuring a productive workforce. Here’s why

The pandemic has triggered a broader deliberation on holistic wellbeing, including mental health

Close to completing its second year, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted each of us in unfathomable ways.

Considered most daunting of its effects initially were its implications on physical health and the resulting economic fragility that let businesses fraught and economies reeling.

However, equally disconcerting, though less deliberated, was its influence on mental health – of the general public and employees in particular. Whether behind counters or in front of desktops, managing customers or delivering projects, employees faced an
incredible amount of stress, their wellbeing plagued amidst rising levels of economic uncertainty, tall expectations and sheer exhaustion.

“Covid started the conversation about how important emotional and mental health is to a healthy business and/or country,” notes Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and MD at The LightHouse Arabia, an accredited provider of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in the UAE.

“For the first time in history the impact of employee wellbeing was so directly apparent within the corporate sector. Governments and corporations had to pay attention and mental health could no longer be seen as something that falls under ‘personal issues’.”

Numbers back a broad consensus that the pandemic’s impact on mental health and wellbeing has been colossal. According to a–study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence last year, the year 2020 was the most stressful year in history for the global workforce. The study, which also surveyed workers in the UAE, found that a staggering 91 per cent of people in the country said that their mental health issues at work impacted their home life negatively, while 77 per cent said that they would prefer to talk to a robot rather than their manager about anxiety and stress at work.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs across the MENA region also faced considerable pressure, a report by EMPWR, WAMDA and Microsoft for Startups suggested. As many as 35.9 per cent of startup founders rated their mental health state as ‘bad’ with 44.2 per cent spending a minimum of two hours weekly trying to destress.

Given that only 2 per cent of healthcare budgets across the MENA region are currently deployed to tackle mental health, the impact of the pandemic on young entrepreneurs and achievers could cause an economic burden of $1 trillion by 2030, the report added.

“Mental wellbeing is a priority now more so than ever before. Businesses are having to respond to employee health concerns or else risk the costs related to stress and burnout. In effect, there is no turning back as employers take the responsibility of finding ways
to offer their team the support and flexibility they need, which ultimately is to their benefit,” says Sawsan Ghanem, joint managing director of PR firm Active DMC.

While the pandemic’s bearing on people’s lives may have been varied, depending on the degree of impact, one principle continued to ring true for all: people are in greater need of support, be it from colleagues, employers or in the form of relaxed policies.

“Employees should be mindful  of significant changes they may see in team members – personality or work performance because it may be a sign that a person is struggling,” says Sneha John, clinical psychologist at Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic.

“Managers should make themselves available to staff to talk about fears, to answer questions and to reassure them about work and other issues that might come up. Adopting an employee assistance programme developed by academic professionals could help
equip supervisors with resources to recognise and handle problems related to mental wellbeing.”

“Wellness webinars and one-on-one consultations by mental health professionals should be a regular practice in organisations. Employers should create opportunities for confidential conversations in a one-on-one setting. Empathy and assurance from a manager can go a long way in providing a safe space for employees,” she adds.

Ringing in change
Work from home emerged as a lifeline for the business continuity in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis. While preventive measures and widespread vaccination campaigns did encourage employees to return to their offices, the pandemic sparked a broader discussion on holistic wellbeing. In the weeks and months following the health crisis, professionals showed intent to reset their priorities and opt for a flexible approach to working, necessitating key changes in policy books. According to the 2021 Cigna 360° Well-being survey, 41 per cent and 43 per cent of office-based workers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively, prefer to work from home full-time in some capacity.

Several companies across the globe are aligning policies in line with the rising trend to ensure greater productivity and provide employee satisfaction.

PwC has reportedly allowed 40,000 of its US-based employees to work remotely full-time. Meanwhile, Facebook said that as of June 15, it has opened up remote work to all levels across the company, enabling any employee whose job could be performed virtually to request for remote work. Last month, Amazon also offered greater flexibility to its employees. “For our corporate roles, instead of specifying that people work a baseline of three days a week in the office, we’re going to leave this decision up to individual teams,” Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy said in a message to the employees. Meanwhile, in June, multi-service platform Careem launched a pilot programme, asking employees in the UAE to return to the office one day every week. This programme is ongoing, until further notice.

“Several companies are also trialing the ‘condensed’ workweek concept to afford employees greater flexibility. “Whether or not a four-day week is the right solution for a business to stay competitive, a serious discussion over flexible and reduced working hours is something that all organisations will have to address in a world where technology not only defines our social habits but also our working lives,” opines Ghanem.

Sound investment
Recognising the significance of mental health leads to the next logical step – seeking help. However, ‘non-traditional medical costs’ associated with mental health may prove to be an out-of-pocket expense, deterring employees from seeking assistance.

“This is still a huge problem in the mental health space. We need to see massive change at a policy level whereby insurance providers and corporate entities are mandated to cover mental health coverage in even the most basic of insurance policies,” says Dr Afridi.

“Health coverage is currently based on a historical idea that mental and physical health are two separate parts of a person’s health and wellbeing – this belief is outdated and false. Insurance companies clearly understand and know that poor mental health will result in serious physical health issues. In fact over 80 per cent of all primary health concerns are stress (emotional and mental) induced.”The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Mental Health Atlas 2020 report highlighted a global shortfall in mental health investment. In 2020, only 51 per cent of WHO’s member states reported that their mental health policy or plan were fully aligned with international and regional human rights instruments, shy of the 80 per cent target. Offsetting financial costs associated with mental wellbeing and granting employees access to quality support services will result in greater inclusivity.

Taking charge 
With people taking a holistic view to health, conversations around mental wellbeing are becoming louder. Accord-ing to the Cigna survey, globally, 68 per cent of the respondents cited mental health as a very important influence on personal health and wellbeing, while physical health came in at 67 per cent.

“Employees are more aware of their healthcare needs today and are looking for an enhanced health insurance package that offers peace of mind. This has potential to move from being a “nice to have” for many employees, to a “must have” that may well influence career decisions,” it added. With equitable mental healthcare, distinct conversations around related support services and greater cognisance on overall employee wellbeing, the quote, “It doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger” could warrant a change in 2022.

It could get easier too.

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