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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

More UAE companies offering mental health support for employees

Doctors said such services were needed in the UAE where a large proportion of an adult's time is spent at work

Paul Firth, Director of Occupational Health and Corporate Wellness at Icas International. Navin Khianey for The National
Paul Firth, Director of Occupational Health and Corporate Wellness at Icas International. Navin Khianey for The National

More companies are offering mental health support services for employees, including confidential phone lines, as awareness and recognition of the problem grows in the UAE.

As the world marked World Mental Health Day this week, doctors said there is an increasing need for such services.

Stress, overwork and the isolation of being an expatriate abroad are among common causes.

“A large proportion of an adult’s time is spent at work and experiences in the workplace can determine an employee’s overall state of wellbeing,” said Dr Mufeed Hamdi at Seha’s Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.

One company, which provides mental health services to more than 40 companies in the country, said the concept was still very new to the Middle East but is needed.

“We are still the only global provider that is delivering within the region and with feet on the ground presence,” said Paul Firth, Director of Occupational Health and Corporate Wellness at Icas International.

Part of the global Axa insurance group, the company began offering an employee wellbeing program after opening an office in the UAE seven years ago.

The company now provides employee mental health service support to more than 40 clients including Shell, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo.

At a cost of Dh120-Dh160 per year, per employee, staff members are given access to a 24-hour personal support hotline, an online health portal that assess health risk, managerial consultancy and other services that extend to employees’ families.

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The confidential telephone support line – which is the most used service in the UAE - puts staff members in touch with professional counselling psychologists and legal financial experts who speak Urdu, Arabic, Hindi and English.

They also have access to a wellness coach, nutritionist exercise coach and personal life coach.

“The telephone support element goes to our support centre in South Africa where around 500 people are employed,” said Mr Firth.

He said the hotline receives approximately 400 calls from employees daily with relationship issues raised as the most common problem.

“What we see is quite a lot of stress, anxiety and depression. We also see a lot of calls seeking legal and financial information but certainly for the UAE what we get quite a lot of here is people seeking advice around tenancy issues.”

Mr Firth said there was a bigger need for mental health services in the UAE due to the large expat population.

“Here you are away from your home country and in a new environment which is very multi-cultural. That brings a lot of great experiences but it also brings with it a lot of challenges.”

He said being separated from and having limited contact with family and friends can make expatriates feel isolated.

“For a lot of expats, they are here to work and they work extremely hard but we all need a release and, for a lot of people, it’s about talking to someone or accessing professional support when needed.”

Mr Firth said the company has procedures in place to deal with people who could be a potential harm to themselves or others.

“Cases such as that are very rare but they do happen. And really what the program is about is prevention so the sooner you access support then it will reduce your risk of suicides or suicidal thoughts,” said Mr Firth.

Stan Cooper / The National
Stan Cooper / The National

He said strict global policies were also in place regarding “red flagging”, a situation whereby confidentiality can be broken when an individual is deemed likely to be a danger to themselves or others.

“The ethos of the program is that it’s a confidential hotline, so if you call in you can discuss anything and that remains between you and the program itself with the exception that there is potentially harm to you or another individual then we would look at breaking confidentiality,” said Mr Firth.

In his seven years, Mr Firth said there have only been four instances where they have had to break confidentiality.

“It’s all about early intervention and is why its available 24/7 so we remove all the barriers that potentially stop the individual accessing the program so they call when they want, there is no cost, they can access any of the services.”

However, he said the challenge was making employers aware of the importance of such support for their staff.

“Employee engagement with the program in the UAE ranges between five to 15 per cent of all staff per year. It varies between country to country with four per cent in the UK and 20 per cent in Spain.

“For most companies, this is not a service they have an original budget for so when I talk about its value to corporate entity and not just the individual then they have to source a new budget and in the current global economic environment, most budgets have been cut so to go to their finance department asking for a new budget it can be a major challenge,” Mr Firth said.

A recent study led by the World Health Organisation showed that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity

“80 per cent of the calls we are getting are helping individuals with their personal lives so statistically, around 80 per cent of the reason you are not being engaged and are less productive are probably issues related to your personal life that you are bringing into your work environment,” said Mr Firth.

“Companies are operating here, they are bringing in expatriates to work and it’s a massive cost in employing people, I’ve always got to look at a return for investment and the key is engagement – a health happy engaged employee is a more focused and productive employee”

One of the directors of the psychiatric hotline at SKMC said such services were needed in the UAE.

"But I would like to know what are the safeguards put in place to ensure that these people are being connected to competent and professional service providers."