UAE employees want better health insurance with a greater focus on physical and mental wellbeing, according to a workplace study.
A survey of 1,200 people in the Emirates found two-thirds of respondents wanted employers to increase their spending on policies, with 76 per cent calling for more "comprehensive coverage".
But experts cautioned that many companies would not be able to upgrade their benefit packages due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The poll was carried out by Aetna International, a health insurer.
It brought to light a growing awareness of mental health, partly prompted by the challenges of a pandemic which has led many to alter their work patterns and work more regularly from home.
Claire Donnelly, who co-runs human resources consultancy MHC, based in Dubai, said everyone wants good health insurance, particularly at times like these.
“I can’t say I blame employees,” she said.
"If you ask an employee if they'd like this benefit, they are going to say 'yes, of course'."
But companies were forced to make savings last year to survive, and some chose to save on health insurance in order to retain their staff, said Ms Donnelly.
Many of the companies she works with only provide the most basic cover because comprehensive insurance is cost prohibitive.
One wanted to provide a better policy for its staff, but the cost difference in plans was unaffordable.
Basic plans typically cost just Dh750, while the next level up will set companies back Dh5,000 per person, she said.
“There is no scaling. There is no basic 1,2,3, or 4,” she said.
"Because they had just put salaries back up to 100 per cent again, if we had upgraded the medical insurance, that would have been a massive hit that would mean they couldn't afford to do other things.
"So what we did was add a supplement, saying you could go and have dental treatment or holistic treatment, or any kind of treatment, and claim back up to Dh750."
Introducing scaled options for basic cover would give companies additional leeway to upgrade plans, she said.
Dubai's mandatory private medical cover, which costs about Dh750 per employee, would provide someone with Dh150,000 worth of medical treatment each year. Abu Dhabi's mandatory cover provides about Dh250,000 worth of care.
But private hospital costs can quickly rise.
A broken arm could cost tens of thousands of dirhams in treatment, and overnight stays in hospital stay can quickly escalate.
Ms Donnelly said she herself does not have private health insurance due to the cost of premiums.
Every time she has requested a quote, she has been asked to pay Dh50,000 for comprehensive cover for two people, so she sets the money aside and pays for treatment when she needs it.
While health insurance is mandatory for all residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, companies in Dubai only need to provide coverage for employees. In Abu Dhabi, they must cover employees, their spouse and up to three children under the age of 18.
In other emirates the requirement is not mandatory.
The cost of health insurance can be considerable.
Premiums range from around Dh5,500 a year for a 30-year-old expat on a comprehensive plan, to about Dh33,000 for a family of four on the same policy.
“The UAE government has long been a leader in health and wellness, looking out for nationals and residents alike and issuing strong edicts, such as for mandatory health insurance,” said David Healy, chief executive for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Aetna International.
“But the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted that employers need to play their part in offering more comprehensive coverage.”
Research by the insurer showed 72 per cent of employees wanted mental health cover to be included in plans. But few employers, 29 per cent, currently offer virtual or in-person mental health counselling services.
However, almost two thirds of employers are exploring the possibility of giving their employees access to them. The survey also found that 29 per cent of companies currently offer gym memberships, but around half are considering adding them to employee benefits.
Many companies do want to improve their employees’ coverage, said Ms Donnelly.
“They recognise the impact the pandemic has had,” she said.
"But at the end of the day, it comes down to, do you want a salary? It really does get down to those black and white issues of wanting to keep the business going, wanting to be able to pay people a salary or having less people and better medical insurance."