Creating awareness on mental health: the case of Middle Eastern companies

Celine Chami
Jun 24, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

As the conversation on mental health amplifies worldwide, the topic remains muted in the Middle East, a region where the percentage of people with depression and anxiety disorders has reached a staggering 30 percent of the total population.

A study conducted in 2019 states: “Although mental disorders are a leading cause of disability in the Arab region, which includes 5.54% of the global population, Arab countries produce only 1.0% of the global output of peer-reviewed publications in mental health research.”

The study reveals that the main challenges identified include prevalent stigma and low awareness, scarce institutional and funding resources, insufficient training in mental health research, and shortage of reliable and valid assessment tools, among other challenges.

An action plan to counter these includes, first and foremost, addressing stigma and spreading awareness. While such a plan is the start of a roadmap for Arab countries at governmental level, it is worth noting that private and public institutions need to do their share of the work too. A government can create and establish legislation in support of mental health, but if the workplace doesn’t become adapted to accommodate and deal with mental health issues, employees will be reluctant to open up about their mental health.

The first thing leaders need to do is initiate the conversation on mental health within their companies. Instead of treating it like a taboo subject, they should embrace it and work on creating more awareness around it. After all, why should it be treated any different than physical health?

Dr Carolyn Lorian, Head of Clinical Transformation at SilverCloud Health, affirms this statement by explaining that for an employee to flourish at work, it is important for them to feel supported in all aspects, including mental health. Over the past few years, the number of people speaking out about mental health has increased significantly. However, there is still a certain stigma that exists in the workplace. One effective step companies can take to create awareness is to generate an open discussion about mental health, while taking steps to ensure that employees will not be treated differently as a result.

Promote mental health programmes

The mental health discussion needs to happen on every level within the company. That’s why hierarchical and line managers should be equipped with the right training to help them identify symptoms related to different mental health issues.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends establishing training programmes in partnership with business schools to teach leaders how to build and sustain a mentally healthy workforce.

Companies can work on informative material that sheds light on poor mental health and opportunities for treatment, and make such material easily accessible to employees. Moreover, they can host practitioners and experts to explain what the reasons and symptoms of anxiety and depression are, and how employees can work on stress management techniques aiming at reducing anxiety and improving mindfulness and focus.

Another exercise that could be implemented is to appoint, among employees, wellness champions who can help others when in need.

Carolyn adds that, to raise awareness from a companywide perspective, it is important to find frequent, yet creative and very relevant ways to keep the topic of mental health ‘front of mind’ for employees. A well-considered engagement plan that is adapted for different audiences or segments (e.g. factory based workers vs. remote workers) in the organisation is far more effective than a generic ‘one size fits all’ communication campaign or wellbeing calendar of events.

Cut the toxic positivity

According to Mariana Bodiu, Psychotherapist and Wellbeing Strategist at Plumm, it is important to create a dedicated space for people to get mental health help and support at their own convenience. In the workplace, employees are frequently pressured to suppress negative feelings, which can be detrimental to an individual’s physical and mental health. Employees are sometimes told to ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘not to worry/stress/get upset about it’, as the teller tries to be helpful and encourage someone in distress; but in doing so, they may invalidate the person’s emotions and spread ‘toxic positivity’.

“Employers should set an example on mental health awareness, supporting, respecting and listening to employee emotions in the workplace, rather than shutting down any emotion other than ‘happiness’,” Mariana states.

Support hybrid working

Many companies are now following a hybrid-working model in an effort to maintain a healthy work environment. With more people working from home, it is important that organisations check in on their employees – it’s much easier to hide your feelings behind a computer screen, explains Mariana.

She suggests that businesses should not dismiss the benefits of the hybrid working paradigm, but they must recognise that acceptance is dependent on the individual, and that being mindful of each employee’s unique needs will assist their mental health. For some, the flexibility of WFH will help their mental health, while for others feelings such as isolation may negatively impact it. Implementing support systems and regular check-ins will ensure employees know they can openly speak about their mental health, no matter what.

Inclusion as a strategic objective

By definition, inclusion states that companies provide fair access to a workplace that provides equal opportunities and resources, says Mariana, for “people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.”

When a company states that it is inclusive, it must be able to answer to the above in each of its aspects, and treat mental health as a priority among its employees. As Mariana explains, true workplace inclusion means individuals feel appreciated and accepted in their team, and across the larger organisation, without having to conform.

Inclusive organisations enable workers to succeed at work regardless of their background or circumstances. To create a genuinely inclusive company, employers need to build a culture where employees’ issues are addressed, including mental health awareness, and steps are taken to make them feel more at ease, Mariana concludes.

If this is all starting to resonate with companies in the Middle East, it means that not only has the conversation reached them, but that they’re ready to listen and act on it. This is becoming crucial in an environment where countrywide visions are based on citizens’ wellbeing and safety. These need to be looked at holistically, and measures should be truly inclusive of what citizens’ wellbeing really entails. The narrative can’t be changed in one aspect and overlooked in another. Change will only happen effectively when mental health becomes a normal dimension of the workplace.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.