UAE: How the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted workplace health and wellness
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UAE: How the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted workplace health and wellness

UAE: How the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted workplace health and wellness

Companies must help to promote physical activity and wellbeing in 2021


Whether it is to comply with local government mandates, or attract and retain talent, organisations in the UAE regularly assess and update their health and wellness benefits packages. However, over the last year, the unprecedented spotlight on public health has emphasised the need for effective health and well-being initiatives in the workplace like never before.

One of the most significant changes for businesses and their employees has of course been the mass shift to remote working — and with it, the increase in number of digital nomads. Ongoing research we’ve been conducting, with UAE employees and HR Directors, suggests that this shift has had a significant impact on staffs’ physical and mental health, as well as productivity.

For those responsible for corporate health and wellness strategies, understanding the short and long-term health trends created or accelerated by the pandemic will be critical.

Mitigating the long-term effects of sedentary behaviour
For many employees across the Emirates, working from home has eliminated any form of commute. Additionally, without the opportunity to socialise with colleagues —for example at lunch, or over a mid-morning tea/coffee — many of us are moving less.

This increase in sedentary lifestyles can increase the risk of a number of physical health issues, such as muscular skeletal conditions (MSK) and obesity. In fact, when asked about their biggest health concerns while working from home during the pandemic, almost half (44 per cent) of UAE remote workers cited gaining weight as a major concern. Additionally, more than a third (34 per cent) of home-based employees were worried about how their sedentary conditions could lead to afflictions of the bones, muscles, and joints.

Companies must help to promote physical activity and wellbeing in 2021, if we are to begin to tackle the health impacts of sedentary behaviour. Investment in proper ergonomic equipment (both for those working from home as well as in the office) will be key, as will physical health initiatives including access to virtual and physical gym memberships, physiotherapy and other forms of physical care.

Mental health will continue to be a priority
Several studies conducted over the past year have shown an increase in mental health issues since the start of the pandemic. For instance, The World Economic Forum found a particularly strong link between loneliness during the pandemic and a high risk of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and sleep disruption. Our own research found that 77 per cent of UAE workers felt their mental health had negatively impacted their work performance to some extent since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Then there is the fact that mental and physical health are inextricably linked. A mood swing can have a physical cause, such as a hormone or vitamin deficiency; and pain can be a manifestation of stress or anxiety. Research shows, for example, that someone with diabetes is twice as prone to depression as someone without. And those suffering from depression are around 60 per cent more likely to develop back pain in later life that those who are not. This is also a very good reason why we need to take a holistic approach to patient health rather than treat conditions in silos.

While the easing of restrictions may offer some respite, the effects of the last year will not simply vanish. Employers will not only need to contend with the long-term impact the crisis has had on people generally – including higher levels of anxiety and forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – but will need to plan how they can support employees as they adjust back to a more normal pace of life.

Technology will find its place
The pandemic has helped to establish telemedicine as a practical and convenient health care solution, which has had a huge impact on providers and patients alike.

This transition has changed the way people think about access to health care and support. Consumers now expect digital access to information, appointments and advice, and this is being reflected in the wants and needs of global employees. For instance, another study we conducted last year found that, whether it is via smart watches, fitness trackers or applications, 75 per cent of UAE employees believe their employer can help them manage physical health better through technology, while 66 per cent say the same of their mental health.

Additionally, 75 per cent believe access to physical health services (provided by their employer) through their phone would help them manage physical health better, while 64 per cent said the same for mental health services.

This appetite for digital health solutions means technology will play a fundamental role in our new approach to workplace health. Now is the perfect time to reassess how technology such as apps and devices can empower employees to better manage their physical and mental health.

Paying attention to consequences of pandemic-induced long-term health trends
The indirect health impacts of Covid-19 are likely to become clearer as the year progresses, but we know that access to in-person consultations has been limited over the last year. This, coupled with a widespread fear of becoming infected with the virus, means many have delayed check-ups and preventative care such as mammograms. In fact, according to a recent article in The National, 60 per cent of cancer patients delayed hospital visits during the pandemic.

Monitoring the delayed impact of these and other factors will allow decision makers to guide the right elements of their corporate wellness programme. Enabling access to consultations, whether by virtual or physical means, will be crucial to ensure employees are getting the care they need when they need it.

What can businesses do to help employees?
As we transition to the next normal, businesses should consider tailoring their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and other benefits to tackle some of these trends. Benefits should include access to everything from flexible working in order to carry out exercise and attend health check-ups, to access to telehealth services and opportunities to speak with a nutritionist or mental health coach.

In order for programmes to be tailored to the diverse needs of a particular employee population, communication is also key. Employers must listen to their employees’ needs to produce the most effective outcomes in the future. Creating a culture where honest conversations about health and well-being are encouraged, leads to happier, more productive workforces.

The needs of employees around the world have changed drastically during the past year, and the return to normal working life will lead to even more change. Businesses must be willing to adapt to these ever-evolving circumstances and, wherever possible, maintain a working structure and culture designed to prevent these health problems from occurring in the first place.

Catherine Darroue is the senior director of customer proposition, EMEA, at Aetna International

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