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Understanding Workplace Stress Is Key To Managing It Better There's no doubt that workplace culture differs greatly from industry to industry and, of course, country to country. However, there's one thing that far too many of us appear to have in common in today's day and age: workplace stress, which seems to be constantly on the rise.

By Carole Khalife

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There's no doubt that workplace culture differs greatly from industry to industry and, of course, country to country. However, there's one thing that far too many of us appear to have in common in today's day and age: workplace stress, which seems to be constantly on the rise.

A comprehensive study published earlier this year by Workplace Options looked into the increasing use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and the reasons behind it. The study, involving over 100,000 workers from Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America, found that while the use of EAPs has remained steady since 2012, the use of them for problems related to stress, along with depression and anxiety, have increased dramatically.

Specifically, the number of employees seeking assistance for stress rose 28% between 2012 and 2014, with depression stress and anxiety accounting for 83% of all EAP cases in 2014 alone.

And this is far from the only study to report such findings. The 2013 CIPD Absence Management Survey Report echoed the same sentiments, finding that almost half of all respondents had reported a stress-related absence in the past year.

No doubt it is hard to separate our private life stress from that of our work or career stress. That is, we are certainly not walking into the office and leaving our personal concerns at the door; nor are we walking out of the office without taking those work issues along with us. In many ways, it is all bundled together.

But let's focus today on the elephant in the room when it comes to workplace stress. It's an issue that we would all –employers and employees alike– do well to take a closer look at, and see if we are heading in a direction that is becoming more and more out of control. Here I am talking specifically about our increasing workloads.

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Workplace stress is a true UAE problem

At an average of 48 hours, Dubai is now home to one of the longest working weeks in the world, ranked fourth behind only Mexico (48.8), Hong Kong (49) and Turkey (51.2).

This makes for particularly worrying reading, because when we look around the world at the many studies carried out with respect to these issues, we will take note of a very clear correlation between the overall hours worked and the overall stress levels– and I mean a very clear correlation.

According to figures compiled by, the 10 shortest working weeks in the world take place in Denmark (38.3 hours), The Netherlands (39.1), Norway (39.1), New Zealand (39.2), Lithuania (39.5), Sweden (39.7), and Finland (40). Of these seven countries, six –Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Norway– feature in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) top ten countries with the lowest stress levels, ranked first, second, third, fourth, eighth, and ninth respectively.

And while those working the shorter hours see their stress levels dip, it is those at the top of the list who see theirs go through the roof– particularly right here in the UAE. A recent YouGov Siraj survey found that a worrying 59% of UAE residents were stressed– with 65% of these citing their increased workload as the reason. What's more, a recent survey found that on an average working day, almost half (49%) of workers in the UAE feel either "under stress or under severe stress."

If these statistics don't alarm you, they should, because for far too long many of us have considered stress to be a part of life. But in actual fact too much stress can take a devastating toll on both the mental and physical health of individuals. As a result the productivity of organizations suffer, and at the risk of sounding dramatic, so too does the overall wellbeing of our society as a whole.

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The impact of stress on health and happiness

The first place to start when discussing the impact of stress is, of course, our health. Stress has long been linked to a litany of health complaints, many of which plague us here in the UAE. Heart disease –the number one killer in the Emirates– can often be brought about by stress, as can diabetes, which affects around one in five UAE residents.

And a study published in the UK medical journal The Lancet highlights just how much we have to worry about. Looking at more than 600,000 employees, the research found that working in excess of 55 hours a week can increase the risk of stroke by a third compared to those working between 35-40 hours per week.

And of course, there is the big issue of depression, which I have already alluded to above. The condition is a very common result of stress, and while the illness is thought to affect around 5% of the UAE population, the figure is likely far higher if we account for cases of depression brought on specifically by work-related stress.

Moving past the health issue, employers should also be aware of the very clear fact that stressed-out staff are, simply, less engaged. A Towers Watson survey from 2014 looked at both the stress and engagement levels of over 20,000 workers across 12 countries and found that over half of the employees who reported high stress levels were disengaged, while only 10% of workers who did not feel stressed felt disengaged.

This naturally affects overall productivity levels, and turning now to research from Stanford University, a 2015 study found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour working week, and is practically non-existent after 55 hours. In fact, the research found that a person working a 70-hour week produces on average no more than someone who works 55 hours.

And the final thing I will mention here is how that work stress affects the employees' personal lives. A recent study by recruitment firm Monster found that 37% of employees feel the stress of their jobs ruins the time they spend with their partner. Which is likely why the workplace stress caused by those long working hours are often citing as primary reasons why many marriages fail here in the UAE, where the divorce rate has spiked by more than 35% in recent years.

Stress: it's everybody's problem

So the big question is how to solve the workplace stress problem. Well, the first step is to understand that it can never really be removed from the equation. The trials and tribulations of work life (and life in general) will always bring with them large amounts of stress, and we humans are simply not all that good at managing the bigger issues– or the smaller ones for that matter.

We also need to face the fact that the workplace is highly competitive, and this is tied in many ways to basic survival. We work, after all, to take care of ourselves and our families, to put food on the table and shelter over our heads. Beyond this, it's as well apparent that many of us drive ourselves too hard, all towards achieving more and more success– which in itself can be a very unhealthy goal if poorly managed (and it usually is).

Let's though end where we usually do, which is to emphasize the role of the organization. Here it is about creating a culture that puts the people first through a very strong commitment to work-life balance. While ongoing wellness programs to help manage stress are all well and good, treating the symptoms without addressing the cause is no cure. It's simply a Band-Aid.

It truly does need to start at the highest level. The C-suite must to be aware and ensure that work-life balance is part of the overall business strategy. Because only by promoting this type of culture where the wellbeing of the individual comes above the wellbeing of the organization can we even begin to tackle the minefield that is workplace stress.

Related: Boosting Productivity Levels (And Killing Distractions) At The Workplace

Carole Khalife

Head of Human Capital and Employee Benefits, Al Futtaim Willis

Carole Khalife is Head of Human Capital and Employee Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis.

Carole earned her law degree in 2003 before starting her career in the field of medical insurance, joining one of the largest insurance groups in the Levant and GCC region. Since then she has built up extensive experience in the MENA region, supporting some of the largest regional and international organizations in the area of risk management, with a specific focus on medical and life insurance.

Carole joined Al Futtaim Willis in 2015, a joint venture between the Al Futtaim group (UAE) and Willis Towers Watson, a leading global advisory. She supports clients in turning risk into a path for growth through risk management and personalized approaches, customized according to each company’s core business. Carole is passionate about innovation, people and continuous improvement.


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