The stress and strain of a return to normal working ways has gotten bigger. Employers need to show farsightedness in helping their staff cope. Image Credit: Gulf News

Corporations are increasingly taking the lead on employee wellbeing, with structured programmes that aim to support both mental and physical health. Among companies in the US with 200 or more employees, 81 per cent offered some type of workplace wellness programme in 2020, up from 70 per cent in 2008, according to a Employer Health Benefit Survey by Kaiser Family Foundation.

In the UAE, the federal government has announced that enhanced wellbeing is a key long-term policy priority. The Cabinet recently adopted the National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031, which aims to make the UAE a world leader in overall quality of life. The strategy includes 14 components and nine strategic objectives to support people's wellbeing by promoting healthy and active lifestyles, good mental health and positive thinking.

Through organised activities that focus on exercise and diet, corporate wellness programmes aim to encourage individuals to lead more active and healthy lifestyles that help prevent illness. The activities typically offered include gym memberships, access to online programs, quit smoking sessions and group exercise classes. Many companies are also revisiting traditional meal and snacking options with healthier food and drink options.

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Change the calculations

The traditional way to measure the benefit of such programmes would be to look at them in simple return on investment (RoI) terms – how much was spent on the programmes and how much lower were company’s healthcare costs as a result. The direct RoI from wellness programmes is debatable, but that isn’t deterring companies from embarking on and further developing them.

Increasingly, companies are taking a different approach to measuring the effectiveness of these programmes, focusing as well as on ‘value on investment’ (VOI) measures such as absenteeism, presenteeism, retention and all-round company performance.

Even smallest change helps

This is leading companies to evolve programmes so that they focus on additional measures of wellbeing, particularly mental health. Once considered a taboo subject, mental health is now an open subject of discussion, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesuse, head of the World Health Organisation, has called for mental health needs to “be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Attitudes towards mental health in the GCC are clearly shifting. Stereotypes are being overcome and patients are gradually becoming less reluctant to seek treatment. For conscientious employers, there are many routes to supporting mental wellbeing, starting with the availability of counselling and therapy services.

Flexible, or hybrid, working, a particularly topical subject in the light of COVID-19 and is perceived to help improve mental health, as it enables individuals to reduce commuting time and achieve better work-life balance. Other approaches to boosting mental wellbeing include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and mindfulness sessions.

In a recent Aetna International survey of global employee health, 72 per cent of UAE respondents said mental health care provision from their employer is now more important than before. Forty-five per cent said knowing that mental health support is available if they need it would help them to be more productive at work.

A slight cost escalation

Employers are taking these calls seriously and factoring them into their revised insurance budgets. From our recent interactions with insurers and clients, we have seen that organizations are willing to spend on average 2.5 per cent more on their insurance premiums to ensure that mental wellbeing is covered under their policies.

To ensure high levels of engagement with any wellbeing programme, particularly one with mental health aspects, companies must demonstrate that they are serious about what they are doing. Programmes require prominent and visible leaders, perhaps a health and fitness figure from outside the organisation, and senior leadership should be active participants in any program.

There are different ways for companies to evaluate the ultimate success of employee wellness programmes - looking at them in purely financial terms perhaps misses the point. Having an employee wellness programme marks a company out as progressive, forward thinking and employee focused – exactly the kind of company that most of us would like to work for.