McKinsey Health Institute

Better health among Middle Eastern employees can start with awareness

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Previous McKinsey research has shown that for the past century or more, improvements in health have not only delivered immense social benefits1Adding years to life and life to years, McKinsey, March 29, 2022. but also served as a powerful catalyst for economic growth by expanding the labor force and boosting productivity.2Prioritizing health: A prescription for prosperity,” McKinsey Global Institute, July 8, 2020. When employers invest in the health and well-being of their workforce, they have often made gains in productivity and reduced attrition.3

Countries in the Middle East and around the globe are increasingly embracing a modern definition of health that encompasses not just the absence of physical illness but an all-encompassing state of equilibrium between a person’s internal and external environments. This broader definition includes four dimensions: physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.4Adding years to life and life to years, March 29, 2022.

In early fall 2022, the McKinsey Health Institute surveyed more than four thousand employees in four Middle Eastern countries that are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—to understand the state of employee health in the region (see sidebar “About the survey and what we measured”).

This article summarizes what our respondents told us about the state of their health as they saw it, namely, that:

Some targeted actions by GCC countries point to growing recognition of the importance of promoting employee health and well-being. For example, the UAE has been an early adopter in integrating employee health and well-being into its governmental agenda by setting up the National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing.6

However, further opportunities exist, on a systematic basis, for employers and governments across the region. This article explores the status of employee health and well-being, and includes data and insights that GCC leaders could consider using to inform strategies and actions to address the causes of ill health among employees.

Two-thirds of survey respondents, from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, reported symptoms of poor mental health and well-being.

Insight 1: More than 60 percent of GCC respondents say they have experienced mental- and physical-health challenges at some point in their lives

The majority of Gulf Cooperation Council survey respondents said that they had experienced mental- and physical-health challenges.

Insight 2: Anxiety, depression, and distress symptoms are all high among GCC respondents, reflecting a global trend

Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress were all higher than the global average among Gulf Cooperation Council survey respondents.

Insight 3: Symptoms of burnout and intent to leave are often driven by toxic behavior at work

Employees reporting high levels of toxic behavior at work are more likely to experience burnout, leading to an increased intention to quit.

Insight 4: Poor physical health affects some respondents’ ability to work

About 42 percent of survey respondents reported experiencing physical pain that prevents them from doing some work-related activities.

Insight 5: Locally born respondents report higher rates of poor mental and physical health than expatriate employees

Locally born employees report significantly higher rates in both mental- and physical-health domains.

Targeted actions that could improve outcomes

Actions, both preventive and reactive, taken by employers at three levels—organizational, team, and individual—could help to improve employee health and well-being in the GCC region.

Governments also play an important role in fostering health and well-being and in creating an environment for society to flourish and organizations to act. They could consider measures to prevent overall damage to individuals and the system, while having the infrastructure to react if symptoms have already materialized, such as:

  • ensure health and well-being is on their agendas at every level, clarify their aspirations, and craft action plans to drive innovation and impact (for example, by following the WHO’s guidelines for mental health at work7)
  • boost awareness with an inspirational narrative (for example, a campaign reinforcing the importance of employee health) and foster dialogue to reduce stigma
  • define regulatory standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace (for example, possible penalties for organizations that fail to comply)

For example, UAE has developed clear positioning and ambitions regarding 90 initiatives supporting its National Wellbeing Strategy.8 Among those are a Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Bundle, which sets guidelines and requirements for all groups in society; the Network of Happiness and Wellbeing chief officers working on developing programs promoting health and well-being at the workplace, where participants must achieve a Happiness and Wellbeing diploma; and the Global Dialogue for Happiness and Wellbeing raising overall awareness and fostering alignment among governments and organizations.9 (For more on happiness, see sidebar “The role of happiness.”)

Digitally generated image of a tree inside glass containers on a blue background

The secret to great health? Escaping the healthcare matrix

Successful approaches maintain a few focus areas over time and encourage role modeling and sustained ownership by leaders

Organizations can examine actions that drive employee health and well-being (see sidebar “Organizations could take a systemic approach to improving employee mental health and well-being”). Additionally, each employee can individually drive mental health and well-being. As illustrated by the examples above, this involves three common themes:

  • First, start with a diagnosis. Understanding the baseline can help choose how to prioritize which issues are the most pressing, and where to start in addressing them.
  • Second, choose one or two health dimensions of focus and target goals and priorities based on the diagnostic. What are the most impactful opportunities for change? What is the realistic vision for the well-being strategy, accounting for the constraints faced by an organization? For example, Majid al Futtaim’s focus on workplace involves expanding into different health arenas (for example, a “biggest loser” challenge to promote physical health).10 Similarly, individuals could consider ways to incorporate habits such as a daily active break or meditation. The goal is to experience fast successes before getting intimidated by time constraints or limited resources.
  • Third, leaders should role-model interventions, change ways of working from the ground up, and make a sustained commitment over time. Early adopters on all levels help accelerate uptake intervention programs and can serve as ambassadors to raise awareness of health agendas and programs. For example, the UAE hosts the “Global Dialogue for Happiness and Wellbeing” to bring together experts from around the world to share best practices and expertise. Majid Al Futtaim’s “WeCare” representatives are based in each store and discuss professional and individual needs with their colleagues. The goal is not only to establish new standards of what good looks like but also to act as a multiplier for a shared overall benefit.

    On a societal and organizational level, leadership commitment plays a crucial role not only in terms of clear positioning but also in the actual doing. One example is a driver awareness campaign started by Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, chief sustainability officer at Majid al Futtaim. The goal is to show a genuine purpose-driven change that rallies the society, the organization, and all employees behind a shared goal.

  • Finally, well-being metrics need to be linked to employee performance and organizational outcomes, and relentlessly tracked. At a governmental level, societal impact of initiatives also needs to be measured and tracked.

Making the investment to improve employee health and well-being is not easy—and often means committing to a journey over time. This can lead to an upward trajectory in sustained individual and organizational performance with an employer, and in the communities and societies in which they operate.

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