A Lancet Commission report highlighted that mental disorders are rising around the world and will cost the global economy $16 trillion by 2030. An estimated 12 billion working days are lost due to mental illness every year.
Evidence in the UK from the Mental Health Organisation suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days can be attributed to mental health conditions, such as stress, depression and anxiety.
It’s a similar story globally.
The National Institute of Mental Health highlights that the leading cause of absence in the United States is depression and figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), suggest that between 35-45 per cent of work absences can be attributed to mental health problems in many developed countries.
Looking at the UAE, a global survey from Cigna health insurance found that office stress in the UAE has increased from 35 per cent to 45 per cent since 2018.
Additionally, the World Health Organization suggests that the Middle East has the highest rates of mental disorders than any other region. The American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease suggested that stress may affect workers in the UAE more than in any other part of the world because 89 per cent of workers are expatriates. They are often away from their families and in a foreign country, which can fuel their anxiety.
Another study suggests this issue isn’t going to disappear with the next generation of workers either. The Arab Youth Survey 2019 showed mental illness to be of widespread concern in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The study explored attitudes among Arab youth in 15 countries and territories in MENA and found that one-third of them knew someone suffering from a mental disorder such as anxiety and depression.
It also highlighted there is a major stigma around mental illness, with fewer than half of respondents aged 18-24 saying they would seek professional help if they were suffering from a psychological disorder.
Commenting on the research Fadwa Lkorchy, a psychologist at the Dubai-based German Neuroscience Center said the younger generations may be more prone to mental illness because they are more exposed to what’s going on around the world. They also have higher expectations, but not the same resilience as older worker, which may result in feelings of inadequacy in matters of education, career and lifestyle.
She stressed the need for greater discussion about mental illness, to help people deal with daily challenges and to develop skills to improve their mental wellbeing.
I agree. These people are the future workforce and employers in the UAE and globally, need to have mental health on the agenda to better support the wellbeing of their employees now and in the future.
One thing is for sure, it’s a growing issue that isn’t going to disappear any time soon.
Rising presenteeism in the workplace
Another issue causing some employers concern is presenteeism – people going into the office when they are sick. A research paper from Manchester University Research has suggested that being excessively present could be even costlier than absenteeism.
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found as many as 83% of employees said they’d seen it in their workplace in the past 12 months. In 2010, only 24% had experienced presenteeism.
It’s becoming a global issue too. A report from the Institute for Employment Studies highlights that in the USA, 56% of employers say presenteeism is a problem in their organisation, with burnout and low productivity 7.5 times greater with presenteeism than absenteeism.
Breaking the stigma
The challenge facing employers is breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and developing a culture where people feel comfortable seeking help.
The Medical Research Council in the UK is funding a global study into mental health discrimination and highlights that in many countries, 80 to 90% of people experience negative stigma and discrimination.
An article on the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine web site highlights that many aspects of the stigmatisation of mental illness are culture-specific and in developing countries in Asia and the Muslim community there is a widespread tendency to stigmatise and discriminate against people with mental illness.
In particular, the article points to qualitative research conducted in Saudi Arabia that suggests several reasons for stigma towards psychiatric disorders within the Saudi community. The most frequently mentioned reasons were traditions, cultural norms, the way people were raised, and a lack of community awareness.
Other reasons included a fear of aggression and violence from psychiatric patients and a fear of the side effects of psychiatric medications. Psychiatric diseases were also widely reported to be either hereditary or incurable.
Understanding the cultural background and traditions within different countries when developing in mental health strategies is therefore essential for global companies.
Guidance for employers
Employers need to develop a mental health and wellbeing strategy that promotes openness around mental health and offers support to people with mental illness.
The first step is for employers to better understand their working environment, culture and people.
A WHO-led study found a negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, the harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. The report highlights that workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.
There are signs that firms in the Middle East are taking mental health more seriously. Some are offering mental health support services for employees, including confidential phone lines, as awareness and recognition of the problem grows in the UAE. But it’s still early days.
According to psychologists speaking to Gulf News during Stress Awareness Month this year, UAE companies must do more to ensure the mental health of their employees. They agreed that workplace stress was the number one reason for people reaching out for help, and demand for such services was only growing.
Tanya Dharamshi from The Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Dubai said in the article that businesses need to create a positive work culture, one that values its staff and encourages key qualities such as motivation and ambition. Employers also need to be able to spot the signs by developing tangible and realistic support programmes for their employees.
Here are some tips for employers in the UAE taken from the article:
- Highlight how the company recognises the impact of mental health in the workplace and create a culture which promotes positive mental well-being
- Establish a robust mental health & wellbeing strategy, aligned to the domestic and / global benefits offering. By doing so, this will engage employees so they know what support is in place, and by signposting them to the most relevant and practical tools and wider support will ensure a positive first step to self-care is in place
- Ensure employees are educated about mental well-being and the early recognition of mental illness
- Include mental health in workplace activities and awareness days
- Highlight the company’s employee rehabilitation programmes, which should include phased returns and reasonable adjustments of duty, just as would happen following a physical illness.
- Raise awareness of the psychological harm associated with unhealthy behaviours, which many people find themselves reaching for in the early stages of a depressive episode or anxiety disorder
- Ensure an emphatic manager or HR professional is available to talk to employees when required
- Invest in stress management workshops
Obviously when it comes to looking after employees’ mental health there will always be a discussion around cost, but rather than asking if they can afford to implement a strategy, the real question should be, can employers afford not to?
I’ll leave you with one final thought. The World Health Organisation says that for every US$ 1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$ 4 in improved health and productivity.
Can your business afford to ignore mental health any longer?