Why GCC Businesses Must Care About Corporate Wellness – First published in IncArabia.com

When I first started working in the region 14 years ago, employee engagement programs were few and far between and corporate wellness programs were non-existent, other than the odd company subsidised gym membership. In an increasingly competitive, fast paced and challenging market, the question to ask is can businesses afford not to invest in their employee’s wellbeing? And what will be the consequences for businesses and individuals if they don’t?

Some businesses aren’t keen to talk about ‘stress’. That’s OK, let’s talk about resilience instead. Call it what you like, stress costs businesses money, and so increasing resilience is a win-win situation for the business and individual.

Bayt.com just revealed the results of their Health and Lifestyle poll documenting that “a colossal 96% of MENA professionals believe it is the employer’s responsibility to promote employees’ health and wellness.”  This statistic demonstrates, not only the growth of wellness initiatives at work, but the belief from employees that their employer has a responsibility to ensure that at a very minimum, their workplace is not detrimental to health and wellbeing. But if a recent study by Steelcase is anything to go by, only 47% of employees think that the company is taking an interest in their wellbeing, health and safety (compared to the 54% global average).

In my work with businesses here in the region, I have found that on top of the usual stressors most of us experience, (demanding workload, never ending connection to technology and inbox, financial pressures, the pace of change at work, job security) there are additional ones unique to working as an expatriate in a multicultural environment, like the GCC.

These are some of the most commonly cited by employees: at our stress reduction programs:

  • Loneliness as a result of working away from family
  • Limited support network outside of work as away from family and friends
  • Financial pressure to support self and family here and in home country
  • Job security worries not related to career progression – i.e. if I lose my job, I lose my visa and have to leave the country etc.
  • The challenges of communicating in diverse multi-cultural work environments

For organisations in the Gulf, who are yet to introduce any kind of wellness initiatives, there is a great opportunity to step up and address health and wellness at work in a truly meaningful way that will positively impact employee wellbeing and result in ROI for the business.

A study of 42 workplace wellness programs in the USA showed the following impressive statistics in relation to cost savings and financial gains and there is no reason to assume that programs implemented in the GCC wouldn’t also deliver similar benefits:

  • An average of 28 % reduction in sick days
  • An average of 26 % reduction in health costs
  • An average of 30 % reduction in workers’ compensation and disability management claims
  • An average $5.93 to $1 savings-to-cost ratio.

Health insurance is now mandatory for employers to provide in the UAE and if that trend continues throughout the GCC there will be an even stronger business case for companies to implement programs that can lower sickness, absence and stress.

Wellness solutions could be as simple as providing alternative snacks in the office such as fruit and nuts on a regular basis or encouraging staff to move more during the day through educational workshops and literature.  Or more complex programs aimed at specific physical and psychological issues, stress reduction programs, educational workshops and employee assistance programs.

Whether you are a large local or multinational firm, or a small business, there are changes you can make to support wellness and happiness at work and it all starts with asking the right questions.

The questions below are a great starting point. I would also recommend that you think long term and consistency with whichever type and size of program you implement.  Short lived wellness events with little or no follow up whilst a good idea to educate employees about wellness, are of limited value if not followed up with action to support that from the employer on a consistent basis and in the worst case can damage engagement and motivation.  Behaviour change is not easy but the good news is that employers are in a strong position to positively influence healthy lifestyle behaviours for their employees, benefiting the employee, the business and the overall health of the region.

Questions about your employees

  • How many of your employees take regular sick days throughout the year?
  • What are the main causes of employee sickness?
  • How productive are your employees whilst they are at work?
  • Are you able to measure the productivity of your teams?
  • Do your employees have the knowledge they need in order to manage their energy levels and health to maximise their performance at work at work?
  • Is stress an issue for your employees and if so what is causing it?
  • Are lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and obesity prevalent within your employee population?

Questions before you start

  • How do you define wellness within your organisation?
  • How will you build a business case for the investment in the program?
  • What is your budget?
  • How will you measure the effectiveness of the program?
  • What are the short and long term goals of your program?
  • What are your specific measures of success?
  • How will you effectively communicate the program?
  • How will you engage employees in the program?
  • What potential barriers to success to you envisage? How will you mitigate them?