Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Being happy at work is not impossible and companies can make it happen

The UAE has been quick to act on the idea that offices are better places when they prioritise employee well-being

A warehouse-style open plan office. Getty Images
A warehouse-style open plan office. Getty Images

Dysfunctional thinking and unhealthy mental patterns are more common than we realise. They affect our relationships with our families, friends and colleagues. When these patterns remain unchecked, they can morph into disorders, manifest in how people behave and relate to one another. So for example, the frequent breakdown of relationships is a red flag, a first sign that “it’s not them, it's you” and this can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Often, workplaces are a part of the problem. In nations such as the UK and the US, the leading cause of workplace absenteeism is depression.

Many of the best and the brightest employees quickly move on from toxic workplaces. Those who remain tend to become disillusioned or embittered

If we apply the idea of personality disorders to the office, it becomes clear that some employers consistently relate to their staff in potentially damaging ways, resulting in high rates of relationship breakdown. In the world of work, of course, we choose to call it employee turnover.

Many of the best and the brightest employees quickly move on from toxic workplaces. Those who remain can become disillusioned or embittered. People even fall ill when they have to go in to a toxic workplace day after day. It does not take a degree in economics to figure out that none of this is good for organisations. A toxic culture affects productivity, hits their bottom line, and keeps companies from attaining their objectives.

Conversely, employers who relate to their employees in a consistently compassionate style reap the rewards. Such organisations are likely to be concerned with the well-being of their employees. They put in place initiatives to promote contentment, along with fostering a strong sense of purpose and belonging.

When such workplaces properly carry out these moves, the outcomes are invariably positive, with higher levels of employee loyalty, and lower rates of sickness and absence. Furthermore, such working environments tend to be characterised by higher levels of creativity and innovation, good corporate-citizenship and pan-organisational camaraderie. In short, they are better, more pleasant places to work. Once word spreads, these organisations get the first pick of the best talent, and they keep them.

The idea that organisations benefit from promoting employee well-being is gaining global traction and the UAE has been quick to act on this. In 2016, this country took the bold and innovative step of appointing a Minister of State for Happiness. By 2017, organisations across the UAE, private and public sector, created special roles to this end. Some even appointed chief happiness and positivity officers. All these measures made it evident how committed the country was to the cause and to the UAE’s National Programme for Happiness and Well-being.

At least nine workplaces in the UAE have completed or are pursuing a standard set by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which says that the environment of an organisation is relevant to the health and well-being of employees.

Launched in 2014, the standard draws on decades of scientific research and focuses on important areas of building design, including the air and light.

Healthy workplaces are a critical national priority and the UAE has recently announced the Business for Wellbeing Council. This is to encourage well-being in the offices whether through initiatives such as flexible working, access to counselling services or mindfulness sessions.

Headed by the Minister of State for Happiness, Ohood Al Roumi, the council comprises eight of the UAE’s largest employers (Majid Al Futtaim Group, Landmark Group, Emirates NBD, Etihad Airways, Aldar Properties, Emirates Airlines, Unilever and Cisco). These companies, between them, employ around a quarter of a million people, which represents a massive opportunity for social good in the country.

On a personal level, I have been involved in workplace well-being initiatives over the past five years. I have delivered courses on mindfulness-based stress reduction to groups of employees from several organisations. When leading these sessions, it always strikes me how valuable many of the participants find these sessions. I frequently hear reports from the groups about improved sleep, better relationships and an enhanced ability to deal with the psychological rough and tumble of the office.

A workplace well-being agenda that goes beyond balloons and cupcakes can have a substantial and lasting impact on peoples’ lives. However, in addition to helping people cope with stress, we should aim to reduce the sources of stress. For example, unrealistic deadlines, job insecurity, lack of autonomy, bullying, or managers with poor interpersonal skills, to list a few.

For sure, promoting employee well-being is good for the bottom line. But this should not be the key driver. We should promote well-being because it is the right thing to do and because humans care about other humans.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: January 22, 2020 09:34 AM

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