Dubai: Stress is the biggest health risk for workers in the Middle East, according to a recent study by Towers Watson, a global professional services company.

However, the study also shows that stress is still a “hidden” issue in the region and is not often acknowledged by employers.

“Until now stress has not been widely acknowledged as a serious issue for employers. This may be partly because employees are reluctant to formally report feeling under pressure, and also partly because stress is rarely in itself categorised as a cause of medical claims,” said Steve Clements, Director Health and Group Benfits at Towers Watson.

“However, stress may be indicated in some of the most common causes of ill health and early deaths. For example, some of the most prevalent claims such as cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal conditions can be caused by or exacerbated by stress, he said.

The Towers Watson Middle East Healthcare Survey was sent to 73 organisations, with staff strength from 200 up to 5,000, across multiple industries in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

The top factors that cause stress in the workplace are the erosion of work-life balance, especially with technologies that require employees to be available after working hours, together with unclear or conflicting job expectations and inadequate staffing, according to the survey.

While most of the respondent firms believed that there is a strong relationship between providing health-care benefits and productivity, most of them lacked a holistic strategy that encouraged healthy behaviour.

“The majority of firms, 75 per cent, say that they do not have a concrete health strategy, yet find that 76 per cent of them have an individual programmes [to] tackle the health and productivity issues,” said the study.

Clements said that all companies in the UAE, and increasingly across the GCC countries, are investing in employee health because they are being mandated to provide health insurance to their workforce. Many already go beyond what is required by the law and provide employees with comprehensive health insurance.

This study showed that more than three quarters of companies also provide some additional health management offerings such as health screenings, health education and coaching, as well as preventive programmes.

However, the study highlighted that while new legislation is being implemented that will potentially increase costs for some employers, the study revealed that a substantial proportion of employers still do not fully understand the details of the compliance requirements. Nearly half 49 per cent of the respondents do not know how much health-care costs represent as a share of total employee costs.

More than a third of 37 per cent of employers in the UAE stated they did not fully understand the requirements of the new legislation, with the figure rising to 44 per cent and 52 per cent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively, according to the study.

“A modest investment in a comprehensive workplace well-being programme can significantly reduce cost associated with heath issues at the workplace. Research in this area demonstrates a return of $2.00 to $5.00 ((Dh7-18) for every dollar invested, said Dr. Belaid Rettab, Chief Economist, Senior Director, Economic Research and Sustainable Business Development Sector, Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Employees are the most valuable asset of a business and anything that affects their productivity directly affects business results, he said.

The Dubai Chamber Sustainability Network ‘Wellbeing in the Workplace’ task group, which consists of companies such as du, Majid Al Futtaim Properties, ABB, Samtech Middle East, Choithram, QBG, Intercoil, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Empower is focused on encouraging companies to develop policies and tools to manage wellness within the workplace and showcase best practice examples, Rettab said.