Mental health as important as salary in the Gulf

Asim Amin, founder and CEO of Plumm, helps businesses support their employees

Companies offering robust mental health support programs will secure the best talent in the Gulf, according to the founder of a workplace wellbeing platform.

Asim Amin, founder and CEO of Plumm, said that while businesses in the region have started to realise the importance of their employees’ mental wellbeing, there is “still a long way to go”.

A recent survey by Mercer Talent Enterprise indicated that a third of the region’s employees are feeling increased stress, fatigue and burnout, and Amin told AGBI: “Companies first need to acknowledge that investing in their human capital is no longer a ‘good to have’ but the most important aspect of their business. 

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people are re-evaluating their priorities and need more than just a salary from their workplace.

“When a workforce is driven and the workplace culture is positive, it can attract the very best talent.”  

The pandemic affected workers in different ways. Many adults had to face the reality of losing their job or having to close down their business.

Others may have had to lay off several of their staff members or had to delve into their savings to pay their rent or cover other costs while they had no cash flow. 

Many adults had to adapt to remote working, often overseeing their children’s schoolwork and e-learning while working full-time. 

Last month a report by Kisi, a New York-based cloud-based security systems provider, named Dubai as one of the world’s most overworked cities.

And recruitment specialist Michael Page reported last year that over half of 1,332 UAE job applicants said that a company’s wellbeing initiatives would impact or define their job search in the future.

Amin said: “This has certainly had a roll-over effect and the population’s long-term mental and physical health has undoubtedly been affected.

“The psychological strain which the pandemic put on many has caused an increase in anxiety and depression.

“Furthermore, there was an increase in burnout from increased working hours and screentime for many people working from home.

“It’s now more important than ever for people to tune into their mental health both in the workplace and in all areas of their daily lives.”

According to Asia Care Group, the cost of certain stress-related illnesses alone on the UAE’s health system is estimated to be around $698 million.

Other reports suggest that, on average UAE employers lose about 8.3 percent of employee salaries to poor mental health, specifically in the 18-29 age group. 

“Businesses are changing and mental health is becoming a top priority for many UAE firms,” Amin said.

“Plumm seeks to bridge the gaps in employee wellness by providing easy access to accredited therapists through one-on-one video and chat therapy.

“This is supported by wellbeing courses such as live, interactive monthly workshops, first aid training in mental health, guided meditations, and soundscapes. 

“Employees’ mental wellbeing support is a key element to this support framework. Organisations must be able to provide a holistic support system for their people, not only when things go wrong (intervention) but also when they are thriving.”

He added: “To put it simply, mental health resources and support needs to be made readily available across workplaces to support employees. This is applicable to all businesses in all industries.”

With the Talent Enterprise research indicating that four in five managers in the UAE do not feel fully equipped to have meaningful conversations with their teams on wellbeing, especially on mental health, it’s no surprise that Plumm is seeing rising demand for its services.

Plumm initially launched in the UK in 2018 and most recently in the UAE to address the growing need for workplace mental wellbeing services. Today it has access to over 200 accredited therapists and specialised coaches who are fluent in 22 languages.

“Growing up in and living all my life in Dubai, I always wanted to bring Plumm here,” Amin said. “Dubai and the UAE have always been leaders and pioneers when it comes to change, progress and growth in the Middle East and the world.”

Based on recent statistics seen by Amin, only about 40 percent of businesses in the UAE have employee wellness initiatives in place, and only half of these are reported to cover mental health. 

“This indicates a huge gap in workplace mental health services,” Amin said. “And often employees do not use their own initiative to seek out the support they need because of the expense, possible stigma, and perceived inaccessibility.

“My ambition for the UAE is to change the current narrative of corporate mental health, by making it easier than ever for employers to make these services accessible to their workforce, and to eliminate the perceived barriers to mental wellbeing services that stops so many people from getting the support they need.” 

According to the UAE National Program for Happiness & Wellbeing, 50 percent of the country’s working population reports burnout, which leads to high turnover rates for companies.

“It’s no secret that the happier and more supported employees feel, the more productive they are, and the more likely they are to speak positively about the company,” Amin said. 

“A healthier and happier employee is a huge asset to every workspace and every business, and the contribution that they are able to make to the long-term success of the company is likely to be far greater than it would have been if they weren’t receiving the mental health support they need.”

Amin added that if the government could set and enforce minimum requirements for all companies across the UAE, it would “certainly help make work environments safer, healthier, and more supportive of people’s personal and professional growth”.

However he stressed that it is the business heads that need to look at the long term impacts and benefits of implementing the relevant support systems for their employees. 

“Most employers are cognisant of how high levels of pressure at work can lead to stress and burnout in employees and want to do their best to offer support,” he said.

“But they do not always know how best to meet all the individual needs of each employee.”

GCC mental health in numbers

According to a new PwC report, untreated mental illness is costing the Gulf region up to $3.5 billion a year in lost productivity, equivalent to at least 37.5 million days.

Within the GCC, approximately 15 percent of the population are believed to suffer from mental disorders in any given year. 

Common mental disorders include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, dementia and substance abuse.

PwC said the scale of the problem is likely to be larger as many never seek help from a qualified professional. In Saudi Arabia, for example, 80 percent with severe mental disorders do not seek treatment.

Every year, 12 billion productive days are lost due to depression and anxiety, costing the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity. Yet, less than two percent of the global health budget is spent on mental health. 

In the GCC, PwC said mental health care systems still suffer from structural challenges, including the shortage of mental health professionals.

Studies have found that for every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for depression and anxiety, there is a $4 return in improved health and productivity. 

PwC also noted that access to mental health care in the GCC is made difficult by limited insurance coverage and by unaffordable prices of mental health services. 

The cost of mental health services varies across and within GCC countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia one session for psychotherapy can cost between $106-212. In the UAE, the cost of a psychiatric consultation may range between $82-163, and that of a psychotherapy session between $82-272.

The supply of mental health services in the GCC is currently suboptimal. According to WHO’s 2017 Mental Health Atlas, the number of mental health workers ranged between five and 38 per 100,000 people among GCC countries, compared to an average of 64 per 100,000 among high-income countries globally. The average number of psychiatrists across the GCC countries is 2.58 per 100,000 of the population. 

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