Workplace wellbeing: Why a candid discussion on mental health is long overdue

In the Middle East, mental health challenges remain under-acknowledged and more needs to be done to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees, say experts.

Edelman's internal initiative Livewell includes meditation, yoga and other activities designed to improve wellbeing (©GettyImages)

An ‘always-on’ culture, social media excluding employees the time to switch-off and a strive for perfection mean professionals in the Middle East PR industry are facing increasing strains on their mental health - yet workplace wellbeing is often still a topic that is ignored in the region, according to experts.

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Across the industry, more needs to be done to ensure wellbeing in the workplace and provide staff with an independent and trustworthy source of support they can turn to if they're struggling with an issue.

Francis Ingham, ICCO chief executive and director-general of the PRCA, said ICCO’s most recent World PR Report shows that mental wellbeing is an issue for the industry everywhere around the world.

"And that most definitely includes the Middle East," said Ingham. Two big dynamics, he says, are driving this. 

"We have prospered in the social media world. But it excludes the possibility of true relaxation. Secondly, we continue to over-service clients - we are doing more work than there reasonably is time for."

Ingham says the big challenge is to normalise the conversation about mental wellbeing so that people are comfortable talking about it.

"That includes both those experiencing difficulties and the colleagues and clients around them."

Ray Eglington, group managing director of Four Communications, also said mental health in the workplace is a challenging issue.

"It is one which is only just beginning to be addressed by the sector – here and in other key markets around the world.

"The ‘always-on’ nature of much of our work, coupled with the competing pressures of different clients and projects, really can create terribly challenging situations for people."

Eglington said the most important thing employers can do is listen.

"We need to make sure employees feel they can raise concerns and will be listened to sympathetically and constructively. Then we need to be ready to act in response to those concerns. 

"Critically, we all need to avoid perpetuating the stigma of mental health issues. Because we often can’t see the symptoms as visibly as those of a cold, say, it can be easy to diminish their importance."

Jonty Summers, managing director of Hanover Middle East, said that while the true prevalence off mental health stress in the Middle East workplace is difficult to estimate, the issue undoubtedly exists.

"Certainly, where you have an intersection of creativity and deadlines; people with a leaning towards perfectionism (which is certainly the PR community); challenging expectations and, perhaps, a requirement for ‘presenteeism’ in the office, your teams are going to find it hard to turn up and do great work."

Summers said Hanover integrated a scheme called the Employee Assistance Programme, provided by GuidanceResources, earlier this year. It offers counselling, legal and financial consultation, and crisis intervention services to employees and their dependents. 

People can speak to a qualified counsellor in their own language about a range of emotional, financial, legal or work-life concerns. The service provides free short-term counselling with local experts who can help with emotional concerns, including anxiety, depression, stress, grief, loss, life adjustments, relationship and partner conflicts.

More companies should integrate similar schemes to protect the mental wellbeing of their employees, said Summers.

Roxanne van Zyl, HR manager for Edelman Middle East, said the organisation takes wellbeing in the workplace very seriously. 

"We run a number of initiatives, which include mental health awareness, mindfulness and reflection sessions that are supported by local motivational speakers, subsidised exercise classes and group sessions, healthy snacks in the office and, most importantly, the promotion of our global internal initiative Livewell.

"Livewell encompasses different aspects of wellbeing, including yoga, meditation, lifestyle/wellbeing webinars etc. We also support our employees with "ComPsych" – a phoneline that colleagues are able to call to receive advice and assistance on matters inside and outside of the workplace. We believe that by providing various wellbeing support channels, there is something for everyone, which encourages a culture of work-life balance."

"I suspect that mental health challenges remain under-acknowledged in most countries, and I’m certain that people don’t talk about it enough in the Middle East. 

"The subject of mental health is not an easy one to broach for an employee with their boss – it requires a high level of trust in your employer and I’m not sure people in this region always trust that they are ‘in good hands’ to be able to reveal elements of themselves that might be less than a vision of perfection."

Ingham said the true answer lies in speaking openly about the subject of mental health to break down any lingering stigma around the issue.

"One day, an agency head or communications director will stand up at a PRCA MENA or PRWeek conference and talk candidly about their mental health issues. The audience will applaud them for doing so. 

"That day will be a defining one for our industry - and I am sure that day is coming soon." 

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