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Workplace Stress

Millions of workers across the GCC may be experiencing symptoms of poor mental health, suggest the findings of new research released today by the McKinsey Health Institute.

To get a better understanding of the state of employee health in the region, the institute conducted a global survey of more than 4,000 employees in four countries—Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and Qatar. 

The survey discovered:

  • The majority of GCC respondents said they had experienced mental and physical health challenges: Two-thirds of GCC respondents reported symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing or had a mental health condition diagnosis.
  • Anxiety, depression, and distress symptoms were all high among GCC respondents: One in three GCC respondents surveyed reported burnout symptoms. Many also reported struggles with physical health conditions, but better social and spiritual health, with different patterns among demographic groups. 
  • Employees reporting high levels of toxic behaviour at work are more likely to experience burnout, leading to an increased intention to quit: Three-quarters of GCC respondents reported being satisfied at work, which appeared correlated to employees listing a sense of purpose in their work and in their relationships at work. 

While 4,000 workers questioned represents a sample only, if that ratio holds true for the mass, that would put the figure of employees struggling at more than 18 million in the four countries, which have a combined workforce of around 27.6 million.

The report authors, Mona Hammami, Ahmed Osman, Vanessa Schneider and Mischa Zielke, wrote: “Some targeted actions by GCC countries point to growing recognition of the importance of promoting employee health and well-being. For example, the UAE has been an early adopter in integrating employee health and well-being into its governmental agenda by setting up the National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing.

“However, further opportunities exist, on a systematic basis, for employers and governments across the region.”

Dr Mona Hammami and Mischa Zielke of the McKinsey Health Institute

The research is the latest to focus on mental health in the workplace, and serves to underline the need for employers and organisations to step up. The Cigna 360 Wellbeing Survey reported that 98 people of respondents in the UAE were suffering from at least one symptom of burnout, while the recent Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index focused on the c-suite, with 94 percent of leaders who responded in the UAE citing poor mental health, with 20 percent citing acute burnout. That research coined the phrase ‘the Boss Loss’ as even managers look to swap the jobs for a better work-lie balance.

The McKinsey Health Institute report, the first to draw conclusions from the four countries in the GCC, assessed a range of health outcomes (mental, physical, social, and spiritual), business outcomes, with a focus on intent to leave, and workplace factors, with a strong focus on toxic workplace behaviours.

The authors defined mental health as: “An employee’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional state of being. Mental health is needed for an individual to understand and interact with the world through memory and language. Mental health allows us to experience joy, direct anger, limit harmful, impulsive behavior, and avoid serious depressive episodes. Mentally healthy individuals have the resilience to cope with normal stresses and adverse events while maintaining a positive and realistic sense of self.”

The report also broke mental health down into four subcategories:

Burnout symptoms: An employee’s experience of extreme tiredness, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, and mental distancing.

Distress: An employee experiencing a negative stress response, often involving negative affect and physiological reactivity.

Depression symptoms: An employee having little interest or pleasure in doing things, and feeling down, depressed, or hopeless.

Anxiety symptoms: An employee’s feelings of nervousness, anxiousness, or being on edge, and not being able to stop or control worrying

Survey Results

The top line result from the survey was that 66 percent of GCC respondents said they have experienced at least one mental-health challenge at some point in their lives—a figure slightly higher compared with other global research.

While globally, one in four respondents are reporting burnout symptoms, which is correlated to poor mental health. That figure is closer to one in three among GCC employees surveyed, a finding that is consistent with other studies, said the report authors. Additionally, GCC respondents also reported higher levels of distress at the time of the survey, which may be a precursor to burnout symptoms – 55 percent, compared with 32 percent.

More than twice the percentage of GCC respondents report an intent to leave their jobs, compared with employees globally – 36 percent, compared with 16 percent.


The ‘Better health among Middle Eastern employees can start with awareness’ definition of toxic workplaces

“Although the great attrition is a global phenomenon,” said the report: “with factors that include employees not feeling valued, some GCC-specific factors could be exacerbating intent to leave. Specific to the region, variable factors can include sponsorship requirements for expatriates, or competition for local talent.

“Globally, employees reporting high levels of toxic behaviour at work are more likely to experience burnout, leading to an increased intention to quit.

“In our survey, GCC employees who report experiencing high levels of toxic behaviour at work are seven times more likely to experience burnout symptoms, compared with a global average of eight times more likely.

“In turn, respondents experiencing burnout symptoms are four times more likely to report that they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months, compared with a global average of six times.

“While GCC respondents show a similar overall pattern to the global findings, they are less likely to show signs of burnout in response to toxic behaviour and are less likely to leave. Recent data has indicated that toxic culture is the single largest predictor of resignation during the Great Attrition and ten times more predictive than compensation alone.”

Employer Action Needed

Actions taken by employers at three levels—organisational, team and individual—could preventively and reactively improve employee health and well-being in the GCC region. In addition, governments play an important role in fostering health and wellbeing and creating an environment for society to flourish and organisations to act. They can consider measures to prevent overall damage to individuals and the system, while having the infrastructure to react if symptoms have already materialised, for example:  

  • Ensuring health and wellbeing is on their agendas at every level, clarify their aspirations, and craft action plans to drive innovation and impact (for example, following the World Health Organization’s guidelines for mental health at work).
  • Boosting awareness with an inspirational narrative (for example, a campaign reinforcing the importance of employee health) and foster dialogue to reduce stigma. 
  • Defining regulatory standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace, (for example, possible penalties for organisations that fail to comply).

In closing the report’s authors said: “Making the investment to improve employee health and wellbeing is not easy—and often means committing to a journey over time. This can lead to an upward trajectory in sustained individual and organisational performance with an employer, and in the communities and societies in which they operate.

“As individuals, managers could be encouraged to take ownership of health and wellbeing with personalised and bite-sized interventions. As a result, they not only take care of their own health and wellbeing but also act as role models for people they lead.”