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Making Workplace Wellness Count: The How-To Behind the scenes of Re:Set's first-of-its-kind employee well-being program at New York University Abu Dhabi

By Aakanksha Tangri Edited by Aby Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Ever since Bashiru Mugyeni, a Campus Safety Officer at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), participated in Re:Set's first-of-its-kind employee well-being program, he has been sleeping better, feeling calmer, and is more confident in his ability to resolve conflicts both at home and in the workplace. "It has helped improve my self-esteem," he said, about his experience.

At Re:Set, we provide scientifically-developed and personalized end-to-end employee well-being programs and services for employers to build happier and productive teams. The biggest problem we solve through our workplace wellness programs is to reduce employee burnout and stress, and help people build resilience and develop positive micro habits which leads to lower attrition rates, increase in productivity and as a result an increase in the revenue for the organization.

The UAE workforce -unfortunately- continues to be among the most stressed in the world. The Cigna Well-Being Study from last year found that 90% of the country's population has reported unmanageable stress, with 98% of the workforce reporting at least one symptom of burnout leading them to feel disconnected from work. This is in line with the larger trend of a growing mental health crisis in the GCC, with one in three respondents of a recent McKinsey survey reporting burnout symptoms, and a higher number reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress than the global average.

These numbers are a reminder that companies in the GCC countries, including the UAE, need to ramp up efforts to ensure they prioritize employee well-being, and ensure access to mental health resources and tools. As UAE quickly becomes one of the world's top digital economies, and transforms into a global testbed for futuristic technologies and entrepreneurship, the success of these initiatives -and its growing number of startups- will depend on how these organizations are able to attract and retain world-class talent. This is a direct reflection on how companies prioritize and value the mental well-being of their people, from the board-level executives to the backbone of every organization, the gig workers.

A scene from Re:Set's sessions at New York University Abu Dhabi. Source: Re:Set

To put things into perspective, besides the obvious social benefits of investing in employee well-being, instituting a workplace wellness program that empowers employees to take better care of their mental and overall health is known to increase revenue per employee, and reduce employee turnover by 11% each, reduce employee burnout by 90%, cull absenteeism by 45%, all of which results in better productivity and morale, as well as save millions of dollars on healthcare costs.

Turns out putting your money where your mouth is can bring you even more money.

When we partnered with NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, our goal was to help the university's support staff and domestic workers employed by members of the NYUAD community take charge of their well-being. We focused on laying the foundations to make them aware of the different facets of mental health challenges, and give them the necessary tools to combat any obstacles they may experience at the workplace and beyond.

Our scientifically developed end-to-end wellness program, which has seen success with other marquee clients as well, stood out because it's culturally sensitive, tangible, and customized to the needs of individual employees. "Our Institution's foundation was built on the shared belief in the importance of accessibility to education for all," said Liria Gjidija, Director of Global Outreach and Programs for NYU Abu Dhabi. "While the pandemic brought on significant challenges, it also brought an opportunity to reimagine our programming. It was essential for us to take a proactive approach to provide mental health and well-being resources to help our contracted colleagues and domestic workers, employed by members of our community to navigate the many facets of their lives. Partnering with Re:Set on this endeavor has been a natural fit, as their company's ethos aligns with our vision to foster an environment that empowers communities through education."

Source: Re:Set

More than 50% of UAE's labor workforce consists of blue-collar workers, with the majority from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Organizations must acknowledge the immense social and financial pressure that migrant workers, and even their families, face. Their precarious position in the workplace, along with language and cultural barriers, means that migrant workers often do not receive the mental health support they actually require, and they often don't have the language or understanding to express what they're going through.

With migrant workers forming the backbone of many industries in UAE's private sector, it emphasizes the need for companies to invest in resources and policies that will help them retain these workers and be fiscally smart by ensuring their holistic well-being and employee engagement.

Yet, Re:Set and NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility Program, which specifically targeting its contracted workforce, remains an anomaly in the region. What began as tailored mental health and well-being multimedia resources and videos in the top eight languages spoken by the university's staff soon transitioned into in-person certified well-being courses once the pandemic restrictions eased.

Related: Kale Yeah! The Journey Towards Wellness, From A To Zen

With a focus on user engagement and utilization, the well-being resources are embedded into NYUAD's internal app (which all employees have access to), and in addition to this, easily made accessible through physical copies placed in the workers' lounge.

Source: Re:Set

Given the lack of awareness and availability of mental health support in many emerging economies, the resources were created to be also shared with families of the NYUAD contracted staff back in their home countries. Our work has impacted thousands of community members and their families across the world, underscoring the importance of mental health, and the gap that exists in the market.

We designed our programs based on employee insights that were gathered through qualitative surveys in their native languages. This allowed us to develop targeted, culturally relevant and scientifically backed resources for the staff. By incorporating worker suggestions on topics such as fostering emotional proximity in personal relationships, combating social isolation, managing uncomfortable negative emotions, understanding and overcoming burnout, effective stress resolution and management, building financial literacy for improved mental health, among many others, Re:Set was able to improve employee engagement and motivation, as well as psychological literacy.

To meet the evolving needs and growing demands of the staff, in the last two months alone, we have piloted eight well-being courses comprising 18 workshops and experiential activities on topics ranging from the art of self-love and effective communication, to psycho-educating the audience on anxiety and depressive disorders, and psychological ways to elevate one's mental well-being using mindfulness, somatic art therapy, and sound healing techniques.

This is the first initiative of its kind in the region focusing on frontline workers, and its success lies in the visible improvements to the mental well-being of our participants.

Consider the example of Richard Makuriwa, a campus security officer at NYUAD. Makuriwa says that there has been a marked improvement in how he responds to stress following what he has learned through the aforementioned courses. "Knowing that there is good and bad stress was a big lesson, and knowing that all stress needs to be dealt with before it spirals to the worst, made a big difference for me," Makuriwa noted.

Source: Re:Set

Research shows frontline workers are 1.5 times more likely to be stressed than their white-collar counterparts. Our program was specifically designed to benefit themthose who are present "on the ground," engaging directly with people, and providing services that are essential to an organization or wider society, who remain burdened by stress due to systemic and socio-economic factors, and are often expected to survive in a new country and perform exceptionally at their workplaces, without the necessary skills to navigate these mental health challenges.

Collaborating with NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility has only reinforced the fact that for any wellness program to succeed, it must take into account the unique and specific needs of each target audience and then provide tailored resources that fit those needs. A one-size-fits-all solution will simply not be enough. Most organizations tend to think that employee wellness is a "nice to have," but, really, it's a strategic investment into a company's future.

Specifically, ignoring the well-being of frontline workers is, to put it bluntly, a poor business decision. Frontline workers are the backbone of every organization, bearing the physical and emotional brunt, and ensuring its smooth running at all times. If their mental health challenges remain unaddressed, and they aren't performing at their best, the whole system is likely to collapse, and employee attrition impacts your company's balance sheet and business continuity. With Re:Set's support, NYUAD was able to drastically improve employee engagement and motivation.

At Re:Set, we're on a mission to help make the UAE the most proactive country in the world when it comes to looking after the holistic well-being of its people, and to take forward the vision of the country's leadership. In fact, much of the work we do is aligned with the UAE's National WellBeing Strategy, which seeks to improve the holistic wellbeing of the nation, communities, and individuals through targeted efforts at improving the livability and sustainability of cities and regions, embracing wellness in places of work and study, creating connected and purposeful digital communities.

This dream of an engaged, healthier, and happier workforce will only come true when corporations choose to invest in their people sustainably, and for the long term.

A 45-minute meditation session sandwiched between back-to-back meetings and toxic workplace dynamics will not really solve the problem- instituting meaningful workplace wellness programs that take into consideration the unique needs of employees across various hierarchies and diversity metrics will. The good thing is that this doesn't have to be daunting.

At Re:Set, we have firsthand witnessed the success when proven, actionable, and flexible workplace wellness programs are designed to help create workplaces that are nurturing, safe, and inclusive for all. You'll only have to do one thing to see your employees thrive- care about them.

Related: Destigmatizing Conversations Around Mental Health At Your Workplace: The How-To

Aakanksha Tangri

Founder, Re:Set

Aakanksha Tangri is founder of Re:Set, which helps organizations boost employee retention, productivity and motivation with end-to-end employee well-being programs. Re:Set offers workplace wellness programs that cater to individuals across all professional levels, from executives to gig-economy workers in your organization. 

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