By David Healy

As we enter 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic endures. But amidst the gloom, there are a few silver linings. The pandemic made us all acutely aware of the importance of family and social networks. It also shone a spotlight on health and well-being — particularly mental health — something many, if not most, of us took for granted. An Aetna survey from September 2020, revealed that 81 per cent of UAE employees consider their mental health to be more important to them now than ever, and 88 per cent believe this of their physical health.

Employers have taken steps to address these issues. A follow-up survey in September 2021 showed 68 per cent of UAE employees had some measure of confidence in their employer to prioritise mental health issues, and 79 per cent said the same of physical health. But we need to keep improving. What follows are three major employee-health challenges businesses will face in 2022, with some tips on how to overcome them.

Addressing long COVID

Of all the issues — economic, social, commercial — that COVID will leave behind, it may surprise some to learn that COVID itself is one of them. Long COVID, also called “post-COVID condition”, results in recurring symptoms in those who contracted the coronavirus and then recovered. Shortness of breath, “mental fog”, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and chest pain are just some of the many symptoms that could affect sufferers. And based on the limited knowledge we have, given the age of the COVID crisis, effects can last from three to nine months, but possibly beyond.

As of January 5, the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority reports 100 per cent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose, and more than 92 per cent are fully vaccinated. This represents one of the world’s most effective responses to the pandemic by a government. But a recent study conducted in the UAE as part of a COVID rehabilitation programme found many in the country to be struggling with long COVID.

Employers must be ready for long COVID. Its sufferers are likely to be less productive because of physical restrictions and an inability to focus. Supportive environments are a must. Understanding, for example, that a simple commute could exhaust a long COVID sufferer will go a long way towards formulating a strategy to deal with it — one that is personalised, pragmatic and compassionate.

Battling comorbidities

When multiple health conditions — especially those that are long-term or chronic — persist, we speak of comorbidities, which extend to the psychological and often stem from neglect of a single condition. COVID restrictions have created a base environment for the development of a range of afflictions and escalation in comorbidities. And as we head into 2022, it is incumbent on businesses to understand the issue and actively address it in the workplace

Combatting comorbidities starts with building a safe, open work culture — issues, particularly relating to mental wellness, must become topics that can be openly discussed, or at least readily discussed in private in an atmosphere of trust.

Beyond normalising discussions around health, telehealth services are a cost-effective way of addressing comorbidities. When primary care is convenient, safe, and confidential, employees can consult on issues such as fatigue, weight gain, stress, or insomnia — all of which can lead to more severe problems. And at a time when sufferers of chronic conditions such as diabetes have trouble keeping up with medications and check-ups, telehealth can also help, and cut off the path to comorbidities.

Eliminating the stigma of health benefits usage

According to Aetna International’s 2020 study, 72 per cent of UAE respondents said mental healthcare provision from their employer was more important than pre-pandemic. And employers seem to have responded. The 2021 study showed 70 per cent of employees believed their company genuinely cared about their health, with 46 per cent going so far as to say health issues had become a prominent part of corporate culture.

However, despite the call for progress and the willingness of employers to deliver it, we now find a reluctance from employees to use these benefits. In the most recent study, 29 per cent of UAE employees expressed concerns about reprisals if their managers were to find out they were struggling. And 20 per cent were worried about how they would be seen by coworkers, with 27 per cent particularly anxious about their mental health issues coming to light.

Like with comorbidities, the answer, at least partially, lies in company culture. A more compassionate workplace, which admittedly must be built with care over time, would encourage employees to talk about important issues, thereby easing the pressure to exude an aura of resilience — never ill, always ready for more work, available 24/7.

Well-trained managers who know how to encourage staff to talk to about health issues — even if those discussions are not conducted with the manager themselves — are also helpful.

The prevailing message must be: “It is okay to be human.” And enterprises must be forthcoming about policies put in place to formalise such a position. Some 33 per cent of UAE employees said they would be more likely to avail of mental health services if they were aware of corporate policies that banned negative repercussions. Open group discussions would also help, as 38 per cent said they would leverage such services if they knew colleagues were doing likewise.

The stormy present

As they compare the quiet past to the stormy present, most business leaders are aware they live in a time where change is happening despite their actions. But being part of the change always brings benefits. Healthier employees are happier, more resourceful, more productive, and more innovative. Competition is heating up across industries. Without a talented, engaged, mentally balanced, healthy, and vigorous workforce, there is no future for an enterprise. Time to face the challenges, then; time to change; time to prosper.