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Dubai: UAE companies must do more to ensure the mental health of their employees, according to local psychologists speaking to Gulf News during Stress Awareness Month this April.

Three leading counsellors in Dubai all agreed workplace stress was the number one reason for people reaching out for help, and demand for such services was only growing.

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“In the UAE in particular, where there is a large community of expatriate professionals, psychological issues such as stress, anxiety and depression are extremely common,” said The Priory’s Tanya Dharamshi.

“Many are expected to hit the ground running in fast-paced and highly pressurised work environments. It’s vital that employers are aware of the huge stresses and strains placed on this particular group and ensure the right support is readily available.”

Harry Horgan at the German Neuroscience Centre said the issue was only increasing and linked to financial uncertainty.

“It seems clear that it is more common than even six months ago,” he said. “Financial insecurity is a well-evidenced cause of mental health difficulties both as a result of the associated worry, uncertainty and due to the increased financial barrier to accessing mental health support.”

January’s Dubai Health Forum at Dubai World Trade Centre said mental health figured among the top 10 illnesses in the UAE, and according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) mental disorders will be second only to heart disease in terms of global burden by 2020.

Last year’s Global Happiness Survey Report released by the Government Summit found that untreated mental illness reduced the GDP of countries by four per cent. However, for every dollar companies spend on awareness of mental health now they can save $4 (Dh14.68) in lost productivity, according to the WHO, who estimate the global economy loses approximately $1 trillion a year as a result of lost productivity due to mental illness.

“I think that the corporate sector is still behind on addressing mental health related issues in the workplace,” said Saliha Afridi from Lighthouse Arabia. “Just recently the World Economic Forum named mental health in the workplace as a serious concern for families, communities and the economies of countries.

“If company management makes it OK to talk about these issues, and provide resources to the employees that show that they take mental health seriously, it will make it easier for people to come forth and talk about it and get the help they need,” she added.

Dharamshi agreed: “Businesses need to invest more in their biggest asset — their employees. Mental health affects an employee’s work, both in terms of quality and quantity.

“Businesses need to create a positive work culture, one that values it staff and encourages key qualities such as motivation and ambition. And employers need to be able to spot the signs and develop tangible and realistic support programmes for their employees.”

Dharamshi added that while there had been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards mental health in the workplace, there remained more to be done.

“Many employees still remain reticent to discuss mental health concerns through a fear of being judged as ‘weak’ and unable to cope with the demands of the job. There is also an overriding fear of losing their job.”

Simply ignoring the issue and finding a replacement wasn’t the long term answer though, said Afridi.

“If we leave aside the ethical issues of dismissing a person who is suffering from mental health problems — it takes a company a lot of resources in hiring, onboarding and dismissing a person. Companies have to invest time, money and energy into attracting the right talent, training and developing people, and creating a culture of care. So, it is not sustainable for them to continue to replace people who are struggling with a mental health problem. One in four have a diagnosable mental health disorder — at some point they will be forced to address the underlying corporate issues that could be resulting in people being distressed and also equip their employees with the skills to be able to manage stress to lead healthier lives.”

Psychologists’ advice for UAE employers

— Highlight how the company recognises the impact of mental health in the workplace and create a culture which promotes positive mental well-being

— Ensure employees are educated on mental well-being and the early recognition of mental illness

— Include mental health in workplace activities and awareness days

— Highlight the company’s employee rehabilitation programmes, which should include phased returns and reasonable adjustments of duty, just as would happen following a physical illness.

— Raise awareness of the physchological harm associated with unhealthy behaviours, which many people find themselves reaching for in the early stages of a depressive episode, or anxiety disorder,

— Ensure an emphatic manager or HR professional is available to talk to employees when required

— Invest in stress management workshops

Phones aren’t helping

As well as technology making employees potentially available to contact 24/7, access to social media has also led to an obsession with status, appearance and the number of followers, all of which impacts negatively on self-esteem, confidence and well-being, says Dharamshi. But beyond that it’s also keeping you up and night and alienating you from real human contact says Afridi, who attributes growing mental health issues to information overload.