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Stress tops health concern for Mideast employees

DUBAI, May 6, 2015

Employers consider stress to be the top lifestyle risk factor of the Middle Eastern workforce, according to a recent survey.

The latest Towers Watson survey on Health Benefits revealed that the other risk factors were lack of physical activity, tobacco use, obesity and unhealthy eating habits.

Steve Clements, director Health and Group Benefits at Towers Watson, said: “The problems associated with most of the risk factors are well documented, but stress is potentially a hidden issue of the region.

“Until now stress has not been widely acknowledged as a serious issue for employers. This may be partly because employees are reluctant to formally report feeling under pressure, and also partly because stress is rarely in itself categorised as a cause of medical claims.

“However, some of the most prevalent claims, such as cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal conditions, can be caused by, or exacerbated by, stress.”

The top factors causing stress in the workplace were considered to be the erosion of work/life balance, especially with technologies that require employees to be available after working hours, together with unclear or conflicting job expectations and inadequate staffing.

Employers are investing more in the health of their employees as many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have implemented new legislation and amendments to laws that deal with mandates for employee healthcare coverage.

These changes are already in effect or will come into effect in phases over the next few years and will implicitly impact employers.

However, while this new legislation is being implemented, which will potentially increase costs for some employers, a substantial proportion of employers still do not fully understand the details of the compliance requirements, and nearly half (49 per cent) of the respondents do not know how much healthcare costs represent as a share of total employee costs, it said.

Steve Clements, director Health and Group Benefits at Towers Watson, said: “It was concerning to learn that more than a third (37 per cent) of employers in the UAE stated they did not fully understand the requirements of the new legislation, with the figure rising to 44 per cent and 52 per cent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively.”

Moreover, soaring health insurance prices are clearly a concern to employers - almost half expect medical cost inflation will be over 10 per cent, with 15 per cent expecting prices to rise over 20 per cent over the next three years, said the survey.

The average inflation expectations ranged between 11 per cent and 12 per cent, which is more than double the rate of salary inflation and will make health insurance benefits in their current form unsustainable for some companies, it said.

“Our study showed that, in order to keep the benefit affordable, many companies are already turning to strategies such as cutting back on the scope of cover, or cost sharing with employees,” said Clements.

“The danger is that this will erode the value of the benefit and so others are turning to potentially more sustainable solutions such as flexible benefits programmes or investing in workforce health initiatives,” he said.

By focusing on prevention rather than treatment, employers can not only control healthcare costs, but they can also increase employee productivity, according to the study.

From the point of view of the employee, the development of health and wellness programmes supports their sense of wellbeing and engagement with their employer, it said.

About 75 per cent of the firms do not have a clear and continuous strategy to improve health and productivity in the workplace. However, they did offer some individual programs last year.

Nearly half of responding organisations indicated they currently do not have a strategy to encourage healthy behaviours, yet almost three-quarters plan to have one over the next three years.

This suggested that, going forward, organisations in the region are realising the value they can reap from a healthy workforce and consequently understand the role of health and wellness strategies in their employee value proposition.

“A robust healthcare and wellbeing strategy should be high priority for any organisation, and this study confirms that many employers are now starting to embrace this approach. The emergence of stress as a serious health risk factor further reinforces that a holistic approach is needed that goes beyond targeting physical conditions to embrace broader wellbeing issues. This can be a real win-win opportunity for employers and employees alike,” Clements added. - TradeArabia News Service

Tags: Middle East | Health | Workforce | employee | employer | stress |

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