Home » Shifting priorities: Work-life balance and wellbeing in the workplace

Shifting priorities: Work-life balance and wellbeing in the workplace

by Madaline Dunn

From accelerating digital transformation to ushering in the widespread adoption of hybrid working models, the global pandemic turned the world of work upside down. 

But, for many people, the crisis also catapulted mental health and wellbeing into the spotlight. It forced them to pause and re-examine what’s important, what they want, and how they feel.

And this is something that has endured beyond the pandemic.

More conversations about mental health are being had, and employees are demanding a better work-life balance.

On World Mental Health Day, ESG Mena explores how things are changing in the Middle East and what’s ahead in the world of work.

Shifting priorities

This year’s Gallup ‘State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report’ found that many employees in the MENA are unhappy. The research revealed that:

  • Only 15 per cent of employees are actively engaged in the workplace,
  • 45 per cent experienced stress a lot the previous day,
  • 32 per cent experienced anger a lot the previous day (the second-highest percentage globally),
  • The ‘quiet quitting’ figure sits at 62 per cent, and
  • The ‘loud quitting’ figure (those ‘actively disengaged’) is 23 per cent.

So, considering this high level of disengagement and dissatisfaction, what is it that employees are searching for? 

A recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and The Network survey, which surveyed 90,000 people from 160 countries, including countries in the MENA, found that a whopping 69 per cent of respondents desire a stable job with a good work-life balance. This is such a priority that, last year, found that over 50 per cent of employees in the MENA had considered leaving their job because of a lack of work-life balance.

Indeed, Aisha Amarsi, Senior Manager and Human Resource Recruiter at Hays Middle East explained that while salary remains an important “pull” factor, aside from salary, benefits package (65 per cent), work-life balance (52 per cent) and career development (47 per cent) are the “most important factors to professionals” when considering a new role.

“Moreover, flexible working (35%), which is synonymous with work-life balance, is now the most valued benefit for GCC-based employees,” said Amarsi.

Amarsi also explained that in today’s world of work, there’s an increased awareness of physical and mental health, and how that contributes to wellbeing and productivity levels.

“We’ve also seen a shift in terms of generational values, with Millennials and Gen-Z now making up a significant proportion of the workforce, their demands are influencing workplace policy,” added Amarsi.

For Shaikha Alharmoodi, who works as Programs Coordinator at Sheraa (Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center) and is also a member of Sharjah Youth Council, it’s important to feel supported and valued as an employee, and have an open dialogue with leadership.

“There needs to be a back-and-forth discussion about development, happiness, and where you want to reach – it needs to be about your personal goals as a person who works in the company, and not just the company itself.”

Here, she said strong leadership is crucial: “You need to work with a leader, not a boss who just cares about the company, profits, and whatever KPIs you need to deliver by the end of the month. A leader will do that while also making sure you enjoy doing it as well.”

Further, she explained that it’s important to have a manager who embraces ideas from all team members, regardless of seniority, whether that’s an intern or a new employee, something which she said can facilitate innovation. 

Different working models

The pandemic demonstrated that the default mode of office working isn’t a requirement for success. And while remote working certainly eased up as restrictions lifted, hybrid working models have remained popular, and it’s not hard to understand why. 

Dr Julie Kantor, Founder of JP Kantor Consulting, Psychologist, Coach and Author, outlines that hybrid working affords employees more flexibility, which means more time to pursue a life outside of work, whether that’s spending more time getting together with friends or going to the gym. With this, Dr Kantor says, comes a greater overall sense of control.

But, on the flip side, when an employee’s home becomes their working space, disconnecting from work can become difficult – something experienced by many throughout the pandemic. 

Here, Dr Kantor said both employees and employers have a responsibility to create boundaries. On an individual level, she said it’s all about learning the skills to create those boundaries, but that employers also have to set standards and clear expectations. Further, Dr Kantor explained that from the team side of things, team charters can be useful, which includes communication agreements.

Of course, with hybrid and remote models, there are also questions about productivity levels – and when it comes to the data, researchers are divided. 

While some research indicates that remote/hybrid working can boost productivity, other studies suggest that working from home lowers productivity. And within the last few years, we’ve seen a number of big names, including Twitter, Google and Apple, either enforce bans on remote working or scale it back. 

But, according to Gartner research, success depends on the kind of hybrid work model companies adopt. Here, it highlights human-centric work design as the optimum model, which employs greater levels of location flexibility, intentional collaboration and empathy-based management. Gartner shared that workplaces implementing this approach are 3.1 times more likely to see low levels of fatigue, 3.8 times more likely to see high performance, and 3.2 times more likely to see high intent to stay.

There is no denying that managing a remote or hybrid team can sometimes be challenging, and Dr Kantor explained that leaders have to define deliverables in a way they’ve never done before. And indeed, on top of this, leaders also need to work harder to facilitate connections, and focus more on employee engagement. But, with so many workers calling for greater flexibility and plenty of examples of how it can be done right, it might be time for more companies to listen. 

Are workplaces adapting?

So, are more companies in the region shifting to a hybrid model? According to Justin McGuire, Founder and CEO – MENA/APAC, MCG Talent, it’s a mixed bag. “I’ve got a mixture of clients, and I’d say the bulk of them are offering hybrid. But, I’ve also got a chunk [of clients] that just haven’t changed one bit,” said McGuire. “Not many have gone fully remote,” he added. 

This aligns with data from Hays Middle East, which found that one in five employers anticipate that employees will be required in the workplace more in 2023, with the main reason being that it will “increase productivity.”

According to McGuire, it’s also dependent on market, and he highlighted both technology and finance as markets where people are still comfortable being remote.

But despite flexible work models not necessarily being adopted across the board, McGuire did note that in the UAE, there have been “great advances” in remote, flexible and hybrid work. “These are things that were never here before,” he said.

Further, McGuire said that the introduction of the Golden Visa Scheme and the ease with which you can get a freelance visa is also changing the work landscape. “People are becoming their own bosses, and choosing when, where and how they want to work,” he said, adding: “That’s probably what’s really grown, and where people are looking after their mental health – it’s because they’re doing it on their own terms.”

That said, Amarsi shared that when it comes to shifting employee priorities, organisations in the GCC are responding “positively”: “Generally, employers recognise the importance of balancing professional responsibilities with personal life to improve wellbeing and, ultimately, productivity,” she said.

With regard to benefits, Amarsi said that one in three employees receive flexible working as a standard benefit and 20 per cent have additional vacation days. Other wellbeing-focused benefits offered to some employees include gym memberships (8 per cent) and psychological support (6 per cent).

“In the UAE, some 80% of organisations transitioned to a new workweek in 2022 and this seems to have had a generally positive impact on work-life balance. Advantages of the new workweek policy include better work-life balance (46%), more flexibility (28%) and enhanced social wellbeing (22%),” said Amarsi.

Indeed, in Sharjah, for example, a four-day workweek has been adopted, and government research shows that this has resulted in a 90 per cent rise in job performance, happiness, and mental health. 

Alharmoodi, who works a four-day week in Sharjah, shared that this has been her experience and said it’s important for a company to instil a culture of work-life balance and normalise it.

Alharmoodi said she believes that adopting the four-day week “evens the odds”: “We’re all leaving at the same time, and all you need to judge me for is how much I can deliver during that span of time. In my opinion, I feel like that’s a bit more fair.”

Alongside this, Alharmoodi said that despite working in a fast-paced, busy environment, the four-day week means people don’t feel they’re burning out and it also means people have more time for self-enrichment. “The entire point is to grow a culture of wanting to do something beyond your nine to five,” she said.

The impact of this? “That translates into women and men starting businesses, people starting projects; it even turns into people taking courses, learning, expanding, doing their masters. It feeds into the community in such a positive way and it changes the culture,” said Alharmoodi.

A culture change?

Speaking about how she is seeing the situation evolve from her role as an executive coach and business psychologist in corporate America, Dr Kantor said the world of work is changing. 

While there used to be the ‘myth of separate worlds,’ where employees would check their problems at the door, she explained that leaders are now experiencing more employees bringing their “whole self” to work. This can be challenging for leaders, she said.

According to Dr Kantor, leaders need to prepare themselves to deal with this change, train themselves to pick up on cues, observe behaviour changes, and have conversations about this with employees.

“In terms of benefits, employees are looking for more things like mental health support, so you’re seeing more things like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) come back into vogue.” Dr Kantor noted that while EAP utilisation is not necessarily high, just having the option there and what that signifies can be “really positive” for employees.

As with globally, in the region, this shift toward prioritising employees’ mental health and wellbeing is new and evolving, and there’s still a way to go. McGuire shared that from what he’s seeing, larger groups and international firms in the region are driving forward change here, and from a mental wellbeing perspective, he said there’s a “bit of catching up to do.”

Reflecting on how things are changing, Alharmoodi said that, historically, there’s been a culture of “just powering through” in the region.

“We’ve gone to hell and back,” said Alharmoodi. “We’ve had wars, colonisation, occupation, and when you’re living in these kinds of situations, you can’t really expect people to sit and preach about depression and anxiety – you don’t have the ability or luxury to do so. Once you are in a country that has found peace, that’s when the healing starts, that’s when therapy comes in, that’s when the talking begins, and the mentality changes.” 

Alharmoodi shared that her workplace is very much leading in this regard and offering support to employees through a free therapy session once a month.

And while not every workplace across the region is adopting flexible working models, introducing free therapy sessions or giving employees an extra day off, the way wellbeing and work-life balance are treated and discussed is changing. And, when the research shows that a happy and fulfilled workforce can result in higher productivity, efficiency and creativity, it’s a win-win for everyone.

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena.

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