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Why UAE firms need to focus on employee stress levels

Why UAE firms need to focus on employee stress levels

In the GCC, stress is the number one workplace issue

We all experience stress to some degree – and a little stress is no bad thing. In fact, manageable stress is what gets us out of bed in the morning and drives us to achieve things on a daily basis.

However, it’s essential to shine a light on the impact of stress on our lives when it exceeds our ‘normal’ threshold, particularly in the workplace.

Most employers are aware of stress. In the Gulf, it’s the number one workplace issue, according to the Willis Towers Watson 2015/2016 [email protected] survey.

While some stress is a normal part of working life, when it reaches chronic levels it has a direct impact on employees’ behaviour and health, in turn impacting productivity. So it follows that tackling stress in the workplace is good for business.

Stress – what stress?

Many companies take pride in providing wellness support for their workers. There are physical activity programmes to help employees get fit, nutrition programmes to encourage healthy eating, quit-smoking initiatives, and diabetes or asthma courses to help with the management of chronic conditions.

But to me, one thing stands out from that list. These initiatives generally tackle physical issues rather than emotional. While stress management and resilience programmes are fairly common in US companies, mental health is still frequently ignored in many businesses around the world. In the Gulf for example, just 9 per cent of employers provide them compared with 35 per cent for diet and exercise activities – according to our survey.

The question is why do so many companies, even those with wellness programmes, quietly ignore psychological or behavioural issues?

This is a tough question to answer, but after years spent talking to both employers and their staff, I suggest that the reluctance to talk openly about stress comes down to a combination of unfamiliarity, stigma and culture. So let’s look at those in more detail:

1. Unfamiliarity: We’re comfortable with physical problems. There’s a reasonably clear cause and effect. Take type 2 diabetes as an example. We know this is caused by an inability of the body to produce or respond to insulin. We know how to treat it, and we know how to prevent it. But some mental health and behavioural problems such as depression, anxiety or addiction are another matter. The causes are often complex and unique to individuals, and so prevention and treatment aren’t always so clear-cut.

However, I would argue that stress is a little different. We know a reasonable amount about its causes and long-term effects. And while classified as a mental health issue, it can affect both behaviour – increased smoking, drinking, substance abuse and poor eating habits – and physical health in the form of poor sleep, fatigue, digestive problems, increased infections, and even long-term issues such as high blood pressure. So if we’re going to begin targeting psychological issues in the workplace, stress may be a good place to start.

2. Stigma: There’s no doubt that psychological issues have a certain stigma attached to them. Terms such as ‘mental health’ are often taboo, which is the reason why so many people are uncomfortable talking about it. This is particularly true in the fast-paced and often high-pressure environment of the UAE. By definition, any expat out here is in the region to work, and an admission that this is a struggle is often viewed as a weakness. The need to break down this particular taboo is a major reason why, as employers, we should be having conversations about mental health and tackling the issue head on.

3. Culture: Some people may take the view that stress is an accepted part of working life and that not all of it is bad. It’s part and parcel of having a job, maybe even a motivator. Some people even thrive off it. While all this is true to a point, we are only designed to experience intense stress for short periods of time. The problem arises when people feel constantly under stress. That’s when the negative and emotional effects kick in – and that’s never good for employee or employer.

Ignore it at your peril

A research article published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease, made a good observation about why stress may affect the UAE workforce even more than in other parts of the world: around 89 per cent of workers are expatriates. They are often away from their families, further adding to their anxiety.

As we’ve seen, stress is bad for long-term physical and mental health, and with illness comes a need to take time off work. In fact, stress is one of the most common causes for short-term absence.

So anything that causes workers to leave or take time off work – or that affects their productivity while at work – is going to be costly. It can really hit the bottom line. The global version of the our [email protected] survey revealed that highly stressed workers had hugely reduced productivity versus those with low levels of stress. Low-stressed workers took an average of 3.9 days off and lost 5.8 days of productivity while at work. In contrast, high-stressed individuals had 4.7 days off and lost 16.4 days of productivity.

Treating the result of stress is also expensive, potentially pushing up premiums. After all, it manifests itself in many ways, from headaches, anxiety and depression to high blood pressure, backache and unhealthy behaviour that can lead to a host of serious conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, lung disease and addictions.

The gravity of the situation is not lost on many large employers, according to the 2017 Willis Towers Watson Behavioral Health Survey. Our research found that over one third of organisations have actively taken steps to reduce stress in the workplace – with an additional 47 per cent planning to do so.

Many are also working hard to remove barriers and get staff talking about stress: currently, 25 per cent have programmes in place to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health support, while 28 per cent actively educate employees to recognise early warning signs of emotional distress.

Stress-busting strategies

If you’re rightly concerned about all this, these stress-busting strategies will boost your business in the long term.

Acknowledge a mismatch: What makes employees stressed? Given that many of us have risen through the ranks to management positions, you would think the answer would be similar whether an employee or employer. But our Global Benefits Attitudes survey suggests otherwise.

When EMEA employers were asked to list the top three causes of stress in the workplace, they listed – a lack of work/life balance, technologies that expand availability during non-working hours, and inadequate staffing. Meanwhile the reasons as per employees were – inadequate staffing, low pay, and unclear job expectations.

This disconnect makes it difficult to tackle the issues that lead to stress. So, start by asking your workers what they find most stress-inducing. Only when you have these answers can you then begin developing strategies to help leaders at all levels to recognise – and mitigate – the causes.

Use current wellness programmes wisely: Not everyone who is under stress will seek medical help – or even recognise that they have a problem. This is where biometric screening comes in.

This involves a clinical assessment of key health measures, and usually includes testing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, body measurements and body fat percentage, as well as a health risk questionnaire about lifestyle. This can be used to identify people at high risk of stress-related illness. Not only can these employees then be offered medical help but they can be targeted with stress-reduction programmes and supported to make healthy behaviour changes, which brings me on to the next point.

Implement behavioural health programmes: These programmes aim to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Also, educating employees on mental health is a key initiative that should be included in any behavioural health programme. Educating employees can really help them manage their own stress levels before it’s too late, as well as assist them in acknowledging the physical and mental signs that they might be stressed in the first place.

Be smart with data: It’s difficult to assess the success of a programme – and more importantly improve on it – if there’s no evaluation strategy in place. Currently not enough companies in the EMEA region are doing so. More businesses need to measure the active engagement of their employees in the programmes, as well as the impact on productivity and healthcare costs. Equally, it can be hard to get a handle on the numbers as many stress-related issues – such as chronic pain, headaches and high blood pressure – are not officially grouped under the umbrella of stress.

A future of reduced stress for all

I hope this has made a convincing argument for reducing stress and anxiety in the workplace. There’s certainly no quick fix, but there are long-term solutions. And the business benefits, such as higher employee engagement and reduced workplace absence, are truly worthwhile.


Steve Clements is the head of Health and Benefits at Willis Towers Watson

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