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A realistic guide to corporate wellness in the UAE

A realistic guide to corporate wellness in the UAE

Tips for HR managers to implement a successful wellness programme at the workplace


Your company offers free gym memberships to the team. But most of your employees ignore the “perk”. The office canteen puts out fruit and other healthy alternatives. Yet much of your staff prefer to go to the store or coffee shop around the corner to pick up the more “fun” (read “unhealthy”) foods.

Let’s face it, it’s very difficult for us humans to take care of ourselves. There are too many temptations out there – in the form of foods that go to work on the pleasure centres of our brain, the cigarette that comes with a 15-minute break away from the workstation, the couch-Netflix combo that invites us to forego that workout for less strenuous pursuits, and so on.

It in fact presents a real problem for firms looking to achieve a positive impact through corporate wellness programmes. And the numbers tell the story: While 85 per cent of large-scale employers offer wellness initiatives of some description to their employees, a recent Gallup poll out of the United States revealed that only 40 per cent of staff actually participate (a number believed to be far lower here in the UAE and Gulf region).

It indeed comes down to the following: Simply offering a wellness programme to your staff is not enough. In order to get more than a minority percentage of your team to use them, realistic and well thought-out programmes are key. Because if something doesn’t work, people don’t waste their time on it.

So how is success in wellness achieved?

Well, obviously it is far easier said than done. Most of us have grown up eating unhealthy foods and living sedentary lifestyles, and so we just continue along without giving it much thought. What’s more, when the concept of healthy living is finally introduced to us, we are often surprised at how difficult it is to make those changes initially and then entirely overwhelmed by the almost impossible task of remaining on the “healthy path” over the long term.

To therefore see greater adoption of wellness programmes (and real adoption is about large numbers of employees sticking to these programmes over the longer term and using them to get healthier), employers need to start with a clear awareness of just how difficult it is for the average person to make major (and in many cases even minor) lifestyle changes.

We are all addicts

Another way to look at it is that it’s necessary for any HR manager wishing to set wellness targets to understand that we are all addicts in some form or another. It’s part and parcel of being human in these modern times. From an early age onwards we have been hooked on sugar and grains and processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle in front of the television or computer screen, and many more ugly habits that most of us do not even recognise as addictions.

So to be clear here, it is indeed not at all just the obvious bad habits such as smoking or drinking. That “modern way of life” is for many of us in itself just one big addiction which starts at birth, and where everything to do with the food we eat to the methods we choose to unwind and de-stress are set entirely on a foundation of health-damaging, short-term pleasures.

And that’s day in, day out, as we spiral towards serious illness.

Now without going into the science of addiction, it’s important to understand (if it isn’t already clear to you) that the reason we find these types of behaviours so difficult to change is because that addiction has altered the way our brains function.

And if that happens in our earliest of years; and if those temptations then remain with us throughout our lives and are constantly marketed as being perfectly normal (just think of all those fast food ads on Sheikh Zayed Road); and if only a select few individuals along the way are cautioning us against such behaviour (none of whom include our doctors who are all too willing to give us medicines yet none too clear on what lifestyle changes we should make) – then we must pose the following question:

How the heck does anyone in HR stand a chance if their objective is to initiate programmes that are supposed to actually lead to an improvement in the overall health of the staff?

Is corporate wellness realistic at all?

In other words, if society cannot do it and if the medical system cannot do it, then how in the heck can you, the HR professional, pull it off? Would you be disappointed if you read this far only to find out that my answer is that there is no answer and that you cannot do it?

Well don’t worry, because I won’t say that. But what I will say is that realistically tackling wellness involves lining up the necessary resources and finances. And granted, while there aren’t many companies out there willing to properly commit, if you in HR are lobbying for “realistic wellness” programmes, your first task is to insist without compromise that you receive the right support.

To be clear, the majority of wellness initiatives are going to be geared towards eliminating poor lifestyle choices such as those discussed above. Obviously. But it again all comes back to what, ultimately, it is going to take to drive initial utilisation of these programmes and the sustainable employee engagement required to realise noticeable health improvements across the company.

And so when I talk about asking for the “right support”, what I mean is that these programmes require a level of intensity and hand-holding that will only be there if your company fully commits the required finances and resources, because it’s far more than a one-person job.

We are after all talking here about changing very negative behaviours that have been a part of us since our early years. And we are also in many cases talking about asking people to stop things that they don’t even know are causing damage, or asking them to stop things that they are aware are causing damage but at the same time bring so much short-term pleasure.

This type of behavioural change literally takes a small army. You need to get your staff to first understand and then believe by constantly educating through formal and organised and engaging knowledge programmes carried out by experts; you need nutritionists and other lifestyle coaches paying very regular visits and tightly guiding your staff towards better health; you need support for addictions ranging from sugar to nicotine to alcohol abuse; and you need basic medical screening on a regular basis to measure progress.

You almost need your own preventive medical infrastructure on site. In fact, you need exactly that. And it won’t be cheap. But then how can it be? Successful corporate wellness is in large part about challenging our broken model of healthcare, which is actually a sick care model (wait till I get sick, then treat me; but don’t support me in a way that will help me avoid getting sick in the first place). And to do that you pretty much have to build your own framework from scratch and continue improving until the results are there.

Doing the thing right

But I honestly do not see any other way. And it’s time we faced this. We need to all go back to the drawing board in order to crack the corporate wellness challenge. With utilisation rates in the UAE hovering in the low single percentages for the majority of wellness programmes on offer at companies, we are effectively wasting our time by continuing to push them in their present form.

We need more convincing and results-oriented programmes that will lead to the actual recruitment of large numbers of participants.

Just remember that if corporate wellness does not start working, then nothing else is going to help in bringing about real change to our broken healthcare system and health insurance model. This in turn means that as employee health here in the UAE and around the world continues to decline, you companies out there are going to continue wrestling with ever-increasing insurance premiums and lost employee productivity due to those unhealthy workers.

And let’s face it, you are already complaining bitterly about that.

Stephen MacLaren is head of regional sales employee benefits at Al Futtaim Willis


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