One in five employees in Middle East is stressed: How to fix it

April 27, 2017 10:46 am


How well are your staff coping?

It’s a question you may find hard to answer. On the face of it, an individual may appear fine while secretly they’re struggling with anxiety, stress, relationship issues, or spiraling debt. Humans are adept at hiding their true feelings, especially when it comes to their emotional wellbeing, and even more so when it comes to telling their employers.

This is evidenced by research in the UK from insurance firm Aviva, which found that 25 per cent of employees they surveyed had taken a day off work due to stress but had told their boss it was due to a physical illness.

So offering your staff the support and assistance they need can often be tricky. Many workers are reluctant to open up to their boss, feeling uncomfortable about seeking emotional support from an authority figure. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are designed to get around this problem by offering confidential counselling from impartial, qualified practitioners.

Whether set up as part of your company or bought in via an independent third party, EAPs support and enhance mental wellbeing through counselling, online and telephone support, and in some cases physical health through general life management.

It costs, of course, but the principle is that healthier staff mean a healthier, more productive business. So could it be a worthwhile investment for your business and, if so, how should you go about establishing an EAP?

Why companies are turning to EAPs

The first question the hardnosed among you might ask is, should I care about things like stress and anxiety? Most employers certainly think so.

In the Willis Towers Watson 2015/16 Global Staying@Work Survey, stress was the top ranked workplace issue, cited by 64 per cent of employers globally. In the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, this rose to 74 per cent.

Stress comes from many sources. At work there are deadlines and targets to meet, awkward colleagues to deal with, line managers to impress. At home there are bills to pay, spouses to please, and children to nurture, educate, and entertain.

A 2016 poll by job site Bayt.com looked at stress in the Middle East and North Africa. Among a sample group of 10,956, the top four stress factors were financial situation (40 per cent), work (19 per cent), personal issues (18 per cent) and health (7 per cent). One in five found their job stressful. Nearly a third had frequent arguments with managers and co-workers.

The impact on performance at work is damaging. The 2014 MetLife Employee Benefit Trends Study surveyed 300 employees in the UAE and found that 39 per cent agreed with the statement, ‘I have taken unexpected time off in the past 12 months to deal with a financial issue.’ Half of the sample group admitted that they were distracted at work by financial worries. Two-thirds said they would be interested in a workplace stress management programme.

From an employer’s point of view, these figures should be taken seriously. Research has shown a direct correlation between stress and absenteeism. The Willis Towers Watson Global Benefit Attitudes Survey, published in 2016, examined the impact of stress in 19 countries around the world.

People expressing low stress levels reported taking an average 2.6 sick days per year, while those with high stress reported 4.1 sick days. There is also evidence that work-related stress is a predictor of an employee’s intention to quit.

So stress and anxiety are bad for employee and employer alike. But can an EAP really make a difference? From the data we have the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. A study published in the Journal of Employee Assistance as far back as 2004 showed a remarkable improvement in emotional and physical health, as well as performance at work, among 60,000 workers over a three-year period of EAPs.

In the four weeks before starting the programme, 30 per cent of workers admitted to having ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extreme’ difficulty performing their work due to emotional problems.

Thirty days after the EAP, this figure had fallen to 8 per cent. Measured at the same time, 15 per cent felt a physical health issue was affecting their work performance before the programme, while only 5 per cent made the same claim afterwards. The average number of unexpected absences fell from 2.37 per employer per month to 0.91.

Ten years later, IT research analysts Aberdeen Group looked at rates of absenteeism and productivity before and after a wellness programme, such as an EAP, had been implemented for a year or more. The average time away from work due to health issues across 140 businesses dropped by 38 per cent. Productivity increased by 41% and healthcare costs fell by the same amount.

So what of the return on investment of EAPs? In 2008 a study published in the Journal of Workplace Behaviour and Health asked this very question. The study concentrated on 155 employees in the US who had been part of an EAP for at least 10 weeks.

The researchers looked at a range of variables, including sick days, energy at work, work quality and relationships with supervisors and found that for every USD 1 employers spent on an EAP, they could expect a return of USD 5.17 to USD 6.47. This was driven mainly by an increase in productivity.

How to introduce an EAP – Watch this space for the details

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Carole Khalifé is Head of Health & Group Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis, a joint venture between the Al Futtaim Group and Willis  
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