Working hard to feel better: The importance of corporate wellness

Stress and strain do not have to go hand-in-hand with dedication to a career. Here's a look at the growing number of employers seeking to increase productivity by prioritising their workers’ well-being.

Tim Garrett, a Dubai corporate wellness specialist, demonstrates a back exercise to Aramex workers. Victor Besa for The National
Powered by automated translation

Your shoulders ache, your head pounds and crashing on the sofa after a long day in the office is the only thing for which you can muster any enthusiasm.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Work-related stress — compounded by poor eating habits and lack of exercise — affects most of us at some stage, leading to low energy levels and, in extreme cases, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

While many strive to lead a healthy life, working for more than 40 hours a week inevitably takes its toll, and with the results of a recent IPSOS survey showing that 42 per cent of UAE employees find the workplace stressful, is there more employers can do to improve employee wellness?

“Absolutely,” says Andrew Picken, managing partner at Bespoke Wellness in Dubai, which offers corporate wellness programmes throughout the country. “Stressed employees struggle to concentrate, make more mistakes and are less motivated, so it’s in the employer’s interests to intervene. Health-based solutions are ideal because they encourage employees to take responsibility for themselves while reducing physical and mental strain, increasing work productivity and boosting motivation levels.”

Health-based initiatives, or corporate-wellness programmes, can range from 10-minute shoulder massages and after-work yoga classes to large-scale sports events for thousands of employees, their families and friends. Other solutions include 60-second office-based workouts and treadmill desks to raise fitness levels and to help prevent back pain, one of the most common complaints among sedentary workers.

Tim Garrett is the founder of Corporate Wellness Co, in Dubai. He works with a variety of organisations in the UAE, helping them to nurture staff well-being and improve productivity.

His most popular programmes address back problems caused by hunching over a computer, cradling a mobile phone and sitting in an uncomfortable chair.

“We help identify if someone has postural issues and look at ways to fix them through a series of exercises,” he explains. “We also focus heavily on nutrition. There are all sorts of healthy things you can implement in your day-to-day life, but a balanced diet is the bedrock.”

Garrett offers a two-hour corporate-wellness workshop, targeting nutrition in the first half and posture in the second.

The courier company Aramex has worked closely with Garrett to improve the health of its almost 500-strong UAE workforce.

Natasha Valentine, the company’s internal communications manager, says Aramex implemented a wellness programme to support its employees and help to improve their working lives.

“We want our staff to be healthy and happy, and felt that the workshop was a great way of helping to achieve that. We looked at how to correct posture and what not to eat before going to bed — small things that collectively can make a big difference to someone’s quality of life.”

Aramex, like several other UAE companies, has gone a step further, reimbursing employees for Dh1,200 of their annual gym fees in a bid to encourage physical exercise.

The company also hosts an annual sports day. Staff, including the chief executive and other senior managers, play football, cricket, badminton, basketball, volleyball and table tennis.

“It’s a great opportunity for staff to socialise outside work and enjoy an active lifestyle,” adds Valentine.

Raghad Adas, a business analyst at Aramex, agrees, explaining that the sports day allows employees to come together and work in teams towards a common goal. “This fosters goodwill and lays the basis for healthy working relationships that can only strengthen the company,” she says.

Corporate wellness is about more than physical fitness, however, and incorporates mental and emotional health, too. According to Picken, the best wellness programmes look at why someone is stressed or why they’re overweight and then address the cause.

“It’s as much about psychology as it is the body,” he says.

Picken visits companies, distributes detailed questionnaires and carries out body analysis, taking in body-mass index and cortisol levels. He considers a range of factors including whether an employee is diabetic, anaemic or depressed, before giving the directors a breakdown of the health of their workforce.

“Employers can see that, for example, 10 per cent of staff are diabetic, 5 per cent have chronic back pain, 30 per cent have high cholesterol and so on, and together we tailor a programme to address the major issues. Wellness programmes should be measurable so that when an employee is retested six months later, you have a clear set of results against which you can compare findings.”

Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank implements a comprehensive corporate-wellness programme, which includes a bike-share scheme and educational seminars. The bank also sends staff regular reminders of working hours, encouraging them to take remaining leave before the year-end and restricting carry-over.

One of its better-known initiatives is the Health & Wealth roadshow, which started in 2013. Open to employees, customers and members of the public, the two- to three-day monthly roadshow began across select UAE branches, offering nearly 2,000 people health checks including tests for blood pressure, body-mass index and blood-sugar levels. Participants also receive a voucher for a free cholesterol check-up and an examination of their finances.

Sonya Santolin, the bank’s head of sustainability, says more companies should implement wellness initiatives. “Corporate wellness programmes bring considerable benefits to companies, from lower absenteeism and increased productivity due to reduced stress and improved health levels, to lower insurance costs, as well as increased morale and engagement levels,” she says.

“As awareness of the benefits of corporate wellness increases, more employers are taking action.”

Leaders in corporate wellness


At Google’s head office in the US, there’s a slide for employees tired of using the stairs. There are also sleep pods and Lego stations as well as table tennis to release tension and unlock creativity. Staff can launder their clothes, shower, enjoy massages and even swim at work. They can also donate annual leave to colleagues who may need extra time to cover emergencies.


The online retailer has introduced Wellness Adventures, in which a small group of employees are taken from different departments to enjoy activities such as a one-hour golf lesson, laser tag or trampolining. Recess Tuesdays see the company scatter playground toys outside, enticing staff to leave their workstation and relieve physical and mental tension by becoming big kids for an hour.

General Electric

GE offers unlimited annual leave to nearly half of its salaried workforce in the US, believing it can be more successful when it trusts and empowers employees. The company also offers an impressive health programme with free preventive screenings and an around-the-clock hotline. Employees who smoke are encouraged to quit by paying smaller healthcare contributions.


The tech giant offers flexible hours, paid membership to full-service gyms and an enviable health package that covers dental, optical, health screenings, flu jabs and even physician house calls. Staff can also use environmentally sustainable on-campus cafes and a range of other facilities such as a spa, bank, dry cleaner and sports fields, blurring the lines between work and life.


This American corporate-wellness technology company has a suite of bike and treadmill desks, enabling staff to walk or cycle while they work. Keeping healthy is made even easier with free quarterly massages, office trampolines, scooters and flash fitness workouts of up to 60 seconds. Staff are also given free devices to track their progress.