GCC countries start prioritising mental health in the workplace

Two thirds of employees in McKinsey Health Institute survey report symptoms of poor mental health

Women taking part in a yoga class. Company managers must make mental health a strategic priority, according to the McKinsey Health Institute. PA
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A survey by the McKinsey Health Institute shows an increased need for regulatory standards on mental health and safety in the workplace across the GCC, amid a move by organisations in the region to prioritise employees' psychological health.

The survey by the consultancy also called for improved access to psychological health resources at companies in the region.

Two thirds of employees in the Gulf reported symptoms of poor mental health and well-being, or had been diagnosed with a mental-health condition, the survey found.

One in three GCC employees who took part in the McKinsey survey said they had experienced burnout symptoms, such as extreme tiredness or reduced ability to regulate their emotions, which is correlated with poor mental health.

“Employee well-being in a broad holistic sense is under strain in the region. But this is a global challenge that countries and companies are grappling with worldwide,” Mischa Zielke, partner at the McKinsey Health Institute in the Middle East, told The National.

“There is now a positive story unfolding across the GCC, as organisations are starting to make this topic a priority to deal with.”

The McKinsey Health Institute surveyed 4,000 employees in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar in August and September last year to assess the state of their mental, physical, social and spiritual health.

This was measured against employees' intentions to leave their organisation in the next three to six months and their experience of toxic behaviour in the workplace.

In 2019, the UAE has unveiled the National Wellbeing Strategy 2031, a comprehensive 10-year plan aimed at further improving the quality of life, through some 90 projects to be implemented by government bodies.

Among its goals is an improvement of the population's physical and mental health, social relationships, education and the efficiency of government services.

The World Health Organisation estimates that poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.

Untreated mental health problems cost an estimated loss of 37.5 million productive days per year at a cost of $3.5 billion, according to a study by PwC Middle East in June 2022.

The McKinsey survey found that 66 per cent of GCC respondents have experienced at least one mental health challenge at some point during their lives.

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This is proportional to physical health challenges, where more than two thirds also report at least one symptom of poor physical health.

About 55 per cent of employees in the GCC also reported higher levels of distress at the time of the survey, which may be a precursor to burnout symptoms, compared with a global level of 32 per cent.

Symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress were all higher than the global average among GCC employees, the survey data showed.

Toxic workplace behaviour

Employees reporting high levels of toxic behaviour at work are more likely to experience burnout, leading to an increased intention to quit their jobs.

The report defines workplace toxicity as behaviour that leads employees to feel unvalued, belittled or unsafe.

Examples include unfair or demeaning treatment, non-inclusive behaviour, sabotaging, cut-throat competition, abusive management and unethical behaviour from managers or co-workers.

GCC employees who said they experienced high levels of toxic behaviour at work are seven times more likely to experience burnout symptoms, compared with a global average of eight times, the survey found.

Burnt-out employees are four times more likely to report that they intend to leave their company in the next three to six months, compared with a global average of six times.

A call to action

“Actions, both preventive and reactive, taken by employers at three levels — organisational, team and individual — could help to improve employee health and well-being in the GCC region,” the report said.

McKinsey outlined eight actions that organisations can take to improve employee health and well-being with a systemic approach.

Companies are urged to make mental health a strategic priority, offer employees better access to resources, eliminate toxic behaviour in the workplace and destigmatise mental health issues.

They should also foster a culture of inclusivity, hold managers accountable and create a supportive environment for employees to thrive, the report said.

Managers can also change ways of working from the ground up and serve as ambassadors to raise awareness of health agendas and programmes.

“Employers can seize the tremendous opportunity that exists to advance the mental health and well-being of their workers by focusing on holistic, systemic interventions,” Mona Hammami, a partner at McKinsey Health Institute, told The National.

Employers can seize the tremendous opportunity that exists to advance the mental health and well-being of their workers by focusing on holistic, systemic interventions
Mona Hammami, partner at McKinsey Health Institute

“Such interventions can include regulatory standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace, ensuring that health and well-being is on their agendas at every level, increasing the sustainability of workloads, fostering dialogue to reduce stigma, and championing more a inclusive culture.”

Well-being metrics need to be linked to employee performance and organisational outcomes and must be “relentlessly tracked”, the report said.

Employees can also take charge of their mental well-being by seeking a diagnosis, target specific goals based on that diagnosis and incorporate daily habits such as meditation.

Updated: January 30, 2023, 3:09 AM