Heavy price: Stress-related illnesses have exploded among people who work long hours Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/XPRESS

Dubai: Conventional wisdom says hard work yields its own rewards. But now the logic has been turned on its head.

Chronic fatigue and stress caused by long working hours are taking a heavy toll on the UAE's work force. Emotional, physical and mental.

And while academic research on the subject is scarce, there's enough evidence to suggest that the danger is clear and present. Consider this: At 20 per cent, the country has the highest prevalence of diabetes (the world average is six per cent) and the second-fastest growing incidence of cardiovascular diseases - the biggest by-products of stress.

A survey by YouGov Siraj last year found that 59 per cent of UAE residents were stressed out, 65 per cent because of increased workloads. And, more recently, 794 out of 3,781 marriages ended in divorce, according to the Dubai Statistics Centre.

"The very conditions that have enabled Dubai's explosive commercial success have also been shown to represent a dangerous downside in terms of workplace health - a startling reminder that you don't get something for nothing in this world," stated BBC broadcaster and motivational speaker Carole Spiers in a special feature for Gulf News.

Curiously, it's not people with high-powered jobs but retail staff, mid-level executives, taxi drivers and teachers who are the most overworked, with no compensation, overtime or leave in lieu.

Ask Saurabh Asthana. A counter sales staff at a mall in Mirdif, the 34 year old works seven days a week. His job keeps him away from home 77 hours a week. That's nearly 20 hours more than the law allows.

"All I get is seven work hours off every week, since the shop opens at 5pm on Fridays. The rest of the time, I'm on my feet, standing behind the counter. My customers love me. But little do they realise what I'm going through," says Asthana.

Yet Asthana's gruelling job pales in comparison to the backbreaking schedule of taxi drivers who work 12-hour shifts 365 days a year.

A Pakistani driver who claims he hasn't taken a day off in more than three years, says staff are low on energy, motivation and morale.

Taxi drivers are given annual leave every three or four years, and that too depends on a case-by-case basis.

Not all of them are lucky, though. An Indian taxi driver said a request to attend his mother's funeral, after over two years of working without a day off, was denied until he paid the company Dh1,000 out of his own pocket to be allowed 14 days' leave.

Last November Hafeez Khatak, a 35-year-old Pakistani driver with a Sharjah-based taxi company, died following a heart attack. His colleagues said he was under tremendous stress.

Alarming surge

"Work-related stress is a big contributing risk factor for heart ailments," says Dr Gopal Kaul, cardiologist physician at Kaul Clinic in Bur Dubai. "Of late, there has been an alarming surge in the number of patients coming to my clinic with cardiovascular diseases. Some of them are as young as 30," he added.

Lucy Garcia, a Filipino office worker in a shipping company, says she handles three people's jobs. Although her contract states her working hours are 8am to 1pm and 2.30pm to 6pm Sunday to Thursday, and 8am to 1.30pm on Saturdays, with a weekly day off on Friday - a total of 48 hours - the reality is different. "I work 12-hour shifts five days. On Saturday I end up working from 8am to 4pm, pushing my total weekly hours to 78 at the minimum."

Although the labour law states that employees asked to work beyond normal work hours are entitled to receive additional pay, the 29-year-old admits to have never been paid overtime. "Additionally, my lunch break is non-existent and I end up snacking at my desk," she says.

Melanie C. Schlatter, consultant health psychologist at Health Psychology UAE says overworking can also lead to serious gastric problems. "A lot of employees in Dubai are not allowed break times during work hours.

As a result, they survive on caffeine and junk food." Nothing illustrates this better than an online poll by recruitment company Bayt.com which found that about one in three executives in the Middle East manages to eat only once a day - at night - and that too mostly fast food. "When you eat too fast, the stress hormones get activated which leads to irritation," says Schlatter.

One category of workers whose attitude affects their output is teachers. Sarita Paul, a grade V teacher at an Indian school in Sharjah, says it's not just students who have homework. "Teachers too have their fair share of work to complete at home. Daily, I work on corrections, prepare lesson plans, make projects and power point slides for presentations.

"After-school meetings are held fortnightly. On sports day, annual concerts and parent-teacher evenings, staff have to be in school till past 8pm and work on the weekends," she says.

The number of people with mental health issues and depression is also increasing. Dr Mona Al Kuwari, director of primary health care at the Ministry of Health, lists lack of sleep and everyday stress as two prime reasons. "The influence on families of overworked people can be catastrophic, leading to marital and relationship tensions," says Schlatter.

A magazine journalist in Dubai agrees. "My relationship with my husband is extremely tense since I work most weekends and often cover late night events. He says I should leave my job or else jeopardise our marriage."

In 2010, over 20 per cent of marriages ended in divorce, with studies citing a struggle to strike a balance between home and work.

Linda Sakr, counselling psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre, says workers running low on energy are likely to make errors which could result in financial losses or even have long-term physical and psychological ramifications.

Decrease in productivity

Countless studies have proven that working too many hours decreases productivity. Yet decision makers in many UAE companies continue violating the law with impunity, believing that working their top employees really hard produces stunning results, and creates an opportunity for superstars to emerge from the rungs and prove their worth.

Sadly that's not the case. Companies that force employees to work long hours end up paying the price in the long run. "Managements need to open their doors and communicate more freely with employees, not only for staff benefit but for the better of the company too," says Schlatter.

Know your rights

If you feel your rights are being abused by your employers, file an official complaint with
the Ministry of Labour, says a legal adviser at a private firm in Dubai. Visit a typing centre to draft your complaint in Arabic which you can then file at the Labour Relations Department of the Ministry of Labour office in Al Ghusais. Following a review, an appointment will be scheduled for both parties to present their arguments to the ministry’s appointed legal adviser. Documents should be presented in support of any claims, along with the employment contract, passport and labour card of the employee.
If the complaint cannot be resolved within 14 days, it will be forwarded to the Dubai Courts, explains the adviser. In order to avoid the risk of being terminated, the employee
may prefer to make a confidential complaint by telephoning the ministry. The complaint will be registered in the ministry’s system and an investigation will be conducted, he says.

  • Maximum working hours for employees are eight hours a day and up to 48 hours a week, Saturday to Thursday.
  • For those working in commercial establishments, hotels and cafeterias or as guards or in other operations where the increase is approved by the Ministry of Labour, the daily work hours can be increased to nine.
  • During Ramadan the working hours must be reduced by two hours.
  • Employees cannot work more than five hours without a break (not included in working hours), which must not be less than one hour.
  • Employees asked to work on Fridays must receive a day off in lieu or an extra 50 per cent above their daily wage.
  • Employees cannot be asked to work two consecutive Fridays unless their wages are calculated on a daily basis.
  • Employees asked to work overtime are entitled to additional pay equivalent to at least 25 per cent of their normal wage. If required to work overtime between 9pm and 4am, employees must receive an increase of at least 50 per cent of their normal wage in respect of the overtime worked.
  • Overtime cannot exceed two hours per day, unless required to prevent substantial loss, a serious accident, or to mitigate the consequences of
  • such accidents.
  • Overtime pay is not extended to those holding managerial or supervisory roles, if such persons exert similar authority of an employer over employees.
  • Certain categories of workers (those who work in petrol refineries, cement
  • and asbestos industry, ice industry etc) should not be employed for more than seven hours per day.

(Names of employees have been changed to protect their identity)