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UAE business leaders should lead the fight against mental health stigma in the workplace

Published by UAE Business

Sir Ian Cheshire – Chair of the Global Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health

Although strides have been made in addressing workplace mental health and well-being across the world, the Covid pandemic has increased the stress, anxiety, and burnout among employees. The fear of being judged or treated differently if you raise a problem with your mental health, the stigma, is a stubborn enemy to better workplace mental health that business leaders can and should take on. 

In 2015 according to the WHO report United Arab Emirates (UAE) recorded the highest level of depression among all countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. Working life and environment is intricately linked to our mental health. In a study on mental health in the UAE during the pandemic, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, more than a third (36%) of workers reported increased stress from work, home, and financial matters. 

Although the pandemic has prompted many more companies to put in place measures to prevent stigma and support staff with their mental health, there are still major disparities within and between nations. In Deloitte’s Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z survey more than six in 10 of those surveyed said their employers had policies in place—including flexible working hours and leave/sick leave policies—to help support them through the pandemic and with their mental health. However, employees in countries like South Africa, Chile, UAE and China were more likely, than the global average employee, to say that they struggle to talk to their employers about their mental health.  

The problem with not being able to have open conversations about mental health at work, is that it means employees are less likely to use support services and help leaders identify issues and make changes that could benefit all its people, as well as company performance. 

In the UAE The Oracle + Workplace Intelligence survey revealed that 94 per cent of the workforce would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health, with 84 per cent of people believing robots can support their mental health better than humans and 77 per cent of employees saying they prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work. 

On one hand, this suggests there is an opportunity for leaders to immediately adopt digital innovations to support their staff, and there are many effective approaches being introduced and trialled across the world. On the other hand, as a business leader I would like my people to be just as comfortable having a conversation with a manager about a mental health issue as they would a physical health problem. 

The Covid 19 pandemic has accelerated changes not only to the organisation of work but also to the nature of business leadership. Today’s leaders must be able to listen to employees and act with compassion and understanding. These are the leaders who will be able to attract the best talent and retain a happy and productive workforce. Tackling mental health stigma in their workplace should be at the top of their to do list. 

The Global Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health is focussing its collaborative efforts on helping business leaders use their influence to take on stigma. The collaboration was founded by businesses committed to advocating for and accelerating positive change for mental health in workplace across the world. The eight founding partners of BHP, BP, Clifford Chance, Deloitte, HSBC, Salesforce, Unilever and WPP have all recognised mental health to be a priority within their companies and have come together to share insights and good practice.  

The unique collaboration believes to succeed we must work together to break down mental health stigma in the workplace, leading from the top and demonstrating the value of leaders taking action to prioritise mental health. Any business can sign up to join the collaboration and take the pledge to prioritise mental health in their workplace through a series of simple, achievable steps. This includes promoting an open culture around mental health, working towards eliminating stigma. 

Across society we see that influential people can role model positive conversations around mental health, to reduce stigma, or the fear of stigma, and open-up space for these discussions. We have seen this effect in sports, music and the arts, but much less so in business.  

To contribute to this effort, the Global Business Collaboration has launched a film series in which the CEOs of the organisation’s Founding Partners make their personal case for prioritising mental health in the workplace. We hope this inspires many more UAE business leaders to show their employees the personal and business benefit of open conversations about our wellbeing. 


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