Previous McKinsey research has shown that for the past century or more, improvements in health have not only delivered immense social benefits1 but also served as a powerful catalyst for economic growth by expanding the labor force and boosting productivity.2 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.4
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:
- Two-thirds of GCC respondents reported symptoms of poor mental health and well-being, or had a mental-health condition diagnosis.5
- One in three GCC respondents reported burnout symptoms. Many also reported struggles with physical health conditions, but better social and spiritual health, with different patterns among demographic groups.
- Three-quarters of GCC respondents reported being happy at work, which appeared to be correlated with employees listing a sense of purpose in their work and in their relationships at work.
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
Insight 2: Anxiety, depression, and distress symptoms are all high among GCC respondents, reflecting a global trend
Globally, one in four respondents are reporting burnout symptoms, which is correlated with poor mental health. That figure is closer to one in three among GCC employees surveyed, a finding that is consistent with other studies.1 Additionally, GCC respondents also reported higher levels of distress at the time of the survey, which may be a precursor to burnout symptoms (55 percent, compared with 32 percent).2
More than twice the percentage of GCC respondents report an intent to leave their jobs, compared with employees globally (36 percent, compared with 16 percent). Although the great attrition3 is a global phenomenon, with factors that include employees not feeling valued, some GCC-specific factors could be exacerbating intent to leave.4 Specific to the region, variable factors can include sponsorship requirements for expatriates, or competition for local talent.
Insight 3: Symptoms of burnout and intent to leave are often driven by toxic behavior at work
Globally, employees reporting high levels of toxic behavior at work are more likely to experience burnout, leading to an increased intention to quit.
In our survey, GCC employees who report experiencing high levels of toxic behavior at work are seven times more likely to experience burnout symptoms, compared with a global average of eight times more likely (see sidebar “What is toxic workplace behavior?”). In turn, respondents experiencing burnout symptoms are four times more likely to report that they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months (compared with a global average of six times). While GCC respondents show a similar overall pattern to the global findings, they are less likely to show signs of burnout in response to toxic behavior and are less likely to leave.1 Recent data has indicated that toxic culture is the single largest predictor of resignation during the Great Attrition and ten times more predictive than compensation alone.2
Insight 4: Poor physical health affects some respondents’ ability to work
Overall, an average of about 42 percent of respondents report experiencing physical pain that prevents them from doing some work-related activities.
Almost half of respondents say the time they dedicate to their jobs curbs the time they have to care for physical health. Some respondents say that underlying behaviors, such as inadequate sleep or unhealthy eating, affects their physical health.
Along with work-related challenges, rapid socioeconomic development is one of several factors in the region that has contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle (among the highest in the world) and a concurrent rise in obesity and diabetes.1 Chronic diseases are now the leading causes of morbidity and mortality.2
Insight 5: Locally born respondents report higher rates of poor mental and physical health than expatriate employees
Expatriate employees surveyed1 report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout at rates that are at or close to global averages, whereas locally born respondents report higher rates of depression, anxiety, distress, and burnout. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of locally born workers say they expect to leave their current organization within the next six months. Some research has suggested that anonymity in the survey may allow locally born workers to acknowledge their mental-health challenges without concerns about deep-rooted stigma.2
Physical health is also stronger for expatriates, with 27 percent reporting symptoms of physical pain (compared with 47 percent for locally born respondents). This may be linked to expatriate workers being younger than locally born workers and/or having to pass health-screening tests from host countries.
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.”)
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.