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One of the most positive changes in business to arise from the pandemic is an increased focus on employee wellbeing, writes Dean Pollard, General Manager, Bupa Global Middle East and Asia.

This comes in many forms and encompasses both physical and mental wellbeing. The health and safety of employees has been a concern of human resource departments for decades. Now, close attention to mental health and emotional wellbeing is also high on the agenda for senior leaders.

While working from home has become ingrained across many professions during the pandemic, the blurred lines between home and work spurred an ‘always on’ culture.  For some, this was felt even before the pandemic, for others bringing work home in this capacity was completely new.  Understandably, the pandemic contributed to increased levels of stress and anxiety among employees, as well as burnout – but it also changed people’s priorities, with many valuing their time in ways they hadn’t before.

The good news is, the latest Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index shows that in the UAE, senior executives have placed employee wellbeing at the top of their company’s investment agenda despite fears over inflation and the rising cost of living.

With global inflation at a 40-year high and the price of everyday goods on the rise, the current economic environment is bound to affect both senior leaders and their workforce. Rising costs and stagnant wages in the UAE have meant that many executives are concerned about their businesses and what the future holds. And Bupa Global’s latest data backs up these sentiments.

Inflation fears

The Bupa Global Wellbeing Index reveals that inflation is the biggest daily worry for top executives globally this year. This is also reflected in the UAE, with the majority of those surveyed (28%) pointing to the rising cost of living and inflation as their biggest day-to-day stress.

The squeeze from inflation on profitability is also reflected in the data with high-level executives freezing staff pay rises and cutting down on research and development (both 13%) in a bid to curb spending.

However, senior executives in the UAE are managing to keep positive despite consistent headwinds. Although inflation continues to be named as one of the biggest challenges they face today, UAE executives remain committed to employee wellbeing, allocating on average over AED 5.3 million (AED 5,312,968.45) towards employee wellbeing over the next year.

Increasingly, it seems across all sectors of business that top executives are realising the link between a happy and healthy workforce, and retaining top talent and productivity levels. This was evidenced by increased investment in training and coaching for staff (19%) and the introduction of softer benefits (15%) such as gym memberships and providing free breakfast, as well as paying for subscription memberships and offering vouchers to employees as an incentive.

There has also been a shift towards more responsible corporate spending among top executives in the country. Business lunches and corporate social events are off the menu in favour of wellbeing initiatives for staff – 14% of UAE top leaders reduced inessential spending to better support employee wellbeing initiatives (13%).

Wellbeing rising in importance

As anxiety levels steadily creep up along with inflation, the emotional wellbeing of employees is more important than ever. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently published its guidelines on mental health at work, revealing depression and anxiety are estimated to cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year driven predominantly by lost productivity. WHO also estimated that 15 percent of working-age adults have a mental disorder at any point in time. 

While there is evidence of senior executives in the UAE prioritising their employee’s wellbeing, they themselves are reluctant to seek help. Bupa Global data shows that 94 percent of top executives have experienced at least one symptom of mental ill health. Despite this, only 17 percent had spoken to a medical professional about their symptoms – indicating that stigmas around mental health remains among UAE top leaders.

There is still much work to be done to alleviate these stigmas and the reluctance to ask for help amongst senior leaders, which has led to many suffering from burnout, anxiety and low mood.  

However, we believe a shift is in motion with a collective rethinking of priorities that will hopefully lead to healthier, happier senior management – essential for the success of any organisation.