By Catherine Darroue

The pandemic has done more than its fair share of damage but with the UAE now on the road to recovery and as another new year approaches, we shall once again dig for the positives. COVID has laid the foundations for more flexible work. It has made organizations everywhere reexamine their risk-management strategies. But above all else, the pandemic has made people focus more acutely on all aspects of their health and well-being.

A September 2020 Aetna International study of more than 1,000 UAE employees showed that two-thirds felt their employers should spend more on health insurance plans and more specifically, 72% of UAE respondents said mental health care provision from their employer is now more important than before the pandemic. And employers seem to have responded. A follow-up Aetna research from September 2021 revealed 70% of UAE employees believe their company genuinely cares about their health, and almost half (46%) say health issues have become a prominent part of corporate culture. Perhaps most encouragingly, when asked to what extent they trust their employer to prioritize their mental health and well-being in the workplace, 68% said they either do to a large extent or completely.

But there is a downside. We are now seeing employees are reluctant to use the very benefits they called for, and that were subsequently offered by their employers. Some 29% fear a negative impact on career progression if company decision-makers saw they were struggling. And one in five are worried about colleagues’ perceptions. Mental health is of greatest concern to UAE workers, with 27% concerned about the disclosure of such issues.

So, while the impending new year gives organizations an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments made in providing better benefits for employees, it’s also time for some resolutions — resolutions that will eliminate the stigma surrounding the use of employee health benefits.

1. Resolve to build an open, safe culture

All behavior is informed by the prevailing culture, so it should be no surprise that if we want employees to avail themselves of benefits, we must ensure that their environment reassures them enough to do so. Compassionate and open workplaces are not easy to build, especially in multicultural societies like the UAE. Family atmospheres take time and require months of patient encouragement and sound leadership.

Managers must create an environment where everyone has someone that they feel comfortable talking to about health issues, even if this is not the manager themselves. There must be a visible abandonment of the old ways, where everyone is expected to always be at the top of their game and be available for work around the clock.

Building an open culture and normalization of such health-related discussions often starts with awareness and education. In fact, a third of UAE employees said if they knew there was a strict policy against penalization for accessing mental health support, they would be more likely to use it. And 38% said they would be encouraged if they knew their peers were also accessing resources. Companies should consider organizing webinars or seminars, hosted by trained professionals, on various health conditions. They can also invite health insurance providers and brokers to run on-site or virtual sessions to make employees aware of all the benefits and resources available to them and the avenues to utilize these. Or they can avail of ready communication from health insurers, on these topics, that can be shared with all employees.

2. Resolve to train leaders to be caring champions of well-being

Culture change is a top-down project. Some 35% of UAE respondents said they would be more likely to access health and well-being support if their leaders told them more about what was available. While leaders can exude authenticity, they can build an atmosphere of solidarity. And if they are trained to recognize warning signs of fatigue and other issues with stigmas attached, then they can proactively approach their teams and encourage them to talk. Once word gets around that the manager is approachable, the culture change has already begun and will take on a momentum of its own.

3. Resolve to promote use of telehealth

The pandemic induced a surge in the use of telehealth. For all the pre-COVID outreach on the benefits of virtual consultations and other digital services, it took the pandemic to encourage widespread adoption. Convenience, plus the ability to provide a full range of primary care services and address issues of comorbidity are all benefits of telemedicine.

But the use of digital treatment paths — whether it be through telehealth services like vHealth, Aetna’s telehealth service, or through apps like Wysa, which provides guided mental well-being support — also delivers the one thing that patients appear to be seeking, particularly when it comes to mental health: anonymity and confidentiality. Data from vHealth showed a 500% increase in the use of the service between March and September of last year, compared with the same period in 2019, and a 262% increase in mental health consults.

De-stigmatize the stigma

The takeaway for UAE businesses is clear. While strides have been made in providing better health and well-being support, organizations need to create cultures — through communication, empathetic leadership, and promotion of confidential health support resources — in which the very idea of not seeking treatment for what ails employees becomes stigmatized. Productivity, innovation, efficiency, talent retention, and a host of other positive business outcomes flow from a serene, engaged workforce.