Companies around the UAE are stepping up their efforts to create a healthier, happier workforce through nutrition, sports and social activities.
The Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone has just recently launched a fitness and wellness programme for its 370 employees, offering everything from yoga and volleyball to health workshops and healthy catered breakfasts.
Maryam Al Murshedi Al Shehhi, the deputy director general, says: "Our main asset is our people. Without a healthy, happy staff, we can't maintain our business. It's like having a machine. If you don't have a good machine, you won't be able to produce a good product."
Most recently, the company has offered doctors' week, where staff learnt about disease prevention, cosmetic treatments and skincare. Next up, there will be campaigns for weight loss and smoking cessation, among others. Every day, catered breakfasts offer healthy food such as fruit, yogurt and cereal. Employees are also encouraged to make simple changes such as drinking more water – outside of Ramadan, of course. "When people sit in an office all day, they don't drink enough, but something like this affects not only health, but morale."
She knows such a big change will not be easy. "It's going to take time," she says. "But before we started, so many people didn't even know what yoga was, for example. And now, you hear people talking about it. Changing people's habits isn't the easiest thing but we want to contribute to improving their eating habits."
The emphasis is on more than just health. "We wanted to introduce employees and bring them together," she says. "Our HR survey found that having a good friend at work really helps motivate people to get up and go to work. Through things like volleyball, we are really seeing this happen."
Meanwhile, in Dubai, Bespoke Nutrition has been gearing up for a corporate health and wellness operation in conjunction with the September 1 launches of its two new clinics at the Creek Golf Club and Emirates Golf Club.
The company, owned by the British nutritionist Andrew Picken, is already working with companies such as Emirates Airline and will soon add Dubai Golf to its list of clients.
Bespoke Nutrition offers blood tests, nutritional advice and lectures to companies. One recent wellness day for an Abu Dhabi-based company revealed that 89 per cent of its 200 staff participants had high cholesterol, and 25 per cent were pre-diabetic. The majority were classed obese.
The return on investment for the companies comes in terms of productivity, less time off and a healthier and happier workforce, says Picken. "If your employee comes to work without having breakfast, for example, they get to lunch sluggish, then they eat a big lunch and then are tired after that, so you've lost hours of productivity," he says, highlighting the importance of education in terms of diet. Each company has a plan tailored to its needs. For example, a legal outfit might focus on food and mood or food and stress, while an oil company might focus on the effects of hazardous chemicals.
Kcal, a healthy cafe and delivery service, recently launched its catering division. "We're doing lots of corporates and also introducing educational nutrition presentations to the employees," says Mark Carroll, the company's co-founder. Its biggest client is Shell, which Kcal caters for at least three times a week.
Carroll explains: "Lots of the larger companies are starting to take the health and wellness of their employees seriously, to help control employee turnover and reduce absenteeism. Some companies like Procter and Gamble even go as far as holding company olympic games."
The Dubai-based personal trainer Ziggy Darwish has worked with clients including The Address Hotel and Nestlé, holding anything from small group training sessions to large team-building events over several days, including lectures on health and fitness as well as physical training such as Thai boxing. He says change must come from the top, focusing first on the company's management. He claims they must lead by example.
"Most CEOs I work with say they want to make a difference," he says. "It's a way of them taking charge of themselves so they can inspire others." It is a motivator for employees, he says, bosses "having fun with staff, giving them the drive and incentive to come to work every day".