UAE's always-on work culture risks burnout

02 June 2021
UAE employees score well in wellbeing index, but work-related stress remains a significant cause for concern, finds new research

Employee wellbeing in the UAE has improved during the Covid-19 pandemic, but stress and the ‘always-on’ culture remain the biggest threat to mental health, according to research carried out by US healthcare and insurance provider, Cigna.

The Covid-19 Global Impact study, which engaged more than 10,000 employees in various sectors across six continents to determine their wellbeing in terms of family, work, social, financial and physical health, showed that the UAE scored well above the global average at 67.4 points, compared with Hong Kong’s 56.7 points and 60 points for the US.

The UAE was the only country to show an increase in health and happiness in all five indices over the pandemic.

However, the Cigna study also indicated that workers in the region are contending with some of the highest levels of work-related stress.

Of the participants in the survey, 71 per cent stated that they are working longer hours, 53 per cent said they work through the weekend, and 95 per cent of workers are impacted by the ‘always-on’ culture of their workplace.

While the issues of work-related stress are not new, the pandemic has exacerbated some of the problems.

“Technology has enabled us to stay connected during a period when there was little or no social interaction,” says Jerome Droesch, CEO of Cigna Middle East and Africa and Southeast Asia. "But at the same time it has increased the level of stress for the whole population in this market.”

Droesch's comments came during MEED's webinar on Deleviering Workplace Wellbeing on 25 May.

Corporate responsibility

Since high stress levels can manifest in serious physical conditions such as heart disease and obesity, as well as mental health problems that affect healthcare costs and productivity, it is imperative that companies address the situation, described by Linda Jarnhamn as ‘the silent pandemic’.

Jarnhamn, founder of Stockholm-based human resource consultant Flow2thrive, says companies are becoming increasingly aware of the issues, but there is still a reluctance to spend meaningful sums of money on corporate wellbeing programmes when their value cannot be conclusively demonstrated.

Without clear parameters, it is difficult to evaluate success.

“The vast majority of programmes that I see are still based on guesswork or with a poorly, or undefined, baseline,” says Jarnhamn.

“There is often a lack of clarity on why companies are spending time and money on corporate wellbeing strategies. So many are rolling out initiatives with no aligned real purpose or objective. The value then becomes unclear.”

Hybrid policies

The government’s recent announcement that companies can now fully return to the office is the most recent work-related change in the UAE.

While it may be welcome news for some employees, it will be a source of considerable stress for others as they struggle with issues such as childcare or transport. Companies should be aware that staff have differing needs and other strategies may be required.

“I do believe that it is time for companies to showcase flexibility to enable a hybrid approach,” says Christine Belanger, senior vice-president for performance development at Mubadala Health.

“I think that it will help a lot in reducing anxiety, absorbing and relaxing change management, and reducing resistance.”

Home support

As employers have come to accept that there are some benefits to remote working, it seems likely that not all companies will fully return to the office. But this raises new issues for wellbeing and mental health.

“Before Covid, when people were predominantly working from the office, any kind of wellbeing issue was probably observed by a colleague or line manager. So employers had the opportunity and the obligation to train colleagues on how to support such cases,” says Peter Makszin, Mena Total Rewards Leader at EY.

“But with a blended work environment this role has shifted to family members.”

Makszin stresses that it is important to reach out to employees' families to let them know what resources are available.

“We want to engage them and make sure that they are equally aware of the opportunities that we provide for an employee.”

View Delivering Workplace Wellbeing, an exclusive MEED webinar delivered in partnership with Cigna, featuring:

• Jerome Droesch, CEO, Cigna MEA & SEA
Linda Jarnhamn, Founder, Flow2thrive
Christine Belanger, SVP – Performance Development, Mubadala Health
Peter Makszin, Mena Total Rewards Leader, EY

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