Interest in Corporate Wellness across the Middle East workplace has gained momentum over recent years as the confines of the old-school, traditional working environments are tweaked and revitalised by the minds of newcomers to this ever-evolving region.

We welcome changing times here in the desert, and ChapmanCG’s Middle East & Africa team was delighted to be joined by a group of pivotal regional HR Leaders who openly shared their challenges and success stories with improving the health of both their employees (and of course profits).

The Roundtable was kindly hosted by Sevda Esenturk, VP HR (Gulf Countries and Pakistan) at Schneider Electric and chaired by Abby Walters, Middle East & Africa Director (ChapmanCG) who warmly welcomed Ipek Karataslioglu from the Istanbul team (ChapmanCG) to the group.

What is Wellness?

On a personal level, we are all looking to achieve a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Organisations now firmly link positive health in workers to improved performance and morale, productivity and reduced absenteeism.

It was agreed amongst our group that what we strive for is an equilibrium between a quality home life and contented effectiveness in our corporate lives. Reaching that equilibrium signals a high level of “Wellness”.

Digital Wellness

Digital wellness is in its early days for many operations across the Middle East; nevertheless, many HR Leaders from our UAE network are exploring and innovating in this area. Apps and wearable devices that monitor physical activity levels and health (blood pressure/heart rate) are becoming quite the norm in the Emirates, especially in multinationals and some of the family-owned business conglomerates alike.

One company commented that they were gamifying sleep by challenging the Executive team to role model rest and wellness in a sleep competition. Those that enjoyed the most sleep were applauded internally—a shining contrast to the corporate norm of working on as little sleep as possible. (Anyone who know’s what a “bunkbed in the basement” means will appreciate this mindset shift!)

Compensation and Benefits specialist from an international hotel giant also spoke of the value of the data streaming from these apps to her chosen insurance providers. The data can be pivotal in accurately and quickly judging the correct premium levels across the employee population.

Urbanisation and the Office

The world continues to urbanise. And so it comes as no surprise that in the land of the 4 x 4 and one where high-level construction continues to prevail in the business freezone hubs, UAE traffic has considerably worsened and commute times have over doubled in 10 years. Corporate workers face hours lost in the bi-daily jammed road system, stressed and drained by trying to meet the rigid start-time expectations of the awaiting office.

A loosening of this corporate schedule and “staggered starts” are warmly welcome by the Dubai-based HR Directors. One leader from multinational pharma group described the new acceptable hours of work start anywhere between 8am and 10am at her organisation, with a similar openness at the end of the day.

Working from home, even if just for a few days per month (and especially after an intense travel schedule) is now expected by many of the senior HR leaders to relieve the daily pain of the stationary Sheik Zayed Road.

In some of the smaller, local companies, some employees are choosing to “hot desk” at many of the serviced office options to steer themselves away from overbearing and rigid office hours, as well as the sting of the sharp hikes in the City’s office rents. This flexibility further opens up the rich talent pool of “trailing spouses” who sit in their drones across the region, but who have responsibilities to the family/children (particularly noting the region’s early school finish times).

Workplace Wonders

Our lively discussion progressed with HR friends proudly sharing many of the very positive features of their current working environments—a genuine indication that wellness sits high on the 2017 Middle East corporate office agenda.

In some businesses, healthy diets are promoted with fresh daily fruit deliveries for all, vending machines stocked with slow-release energy foods, and canteen menu options packed with raw and organic choices. On-site kitchens allow employees to bring home-cooked food with them to the workplace.

“Meeting walks” are proving very effective, especially with the opening of the new Canal Boardwalk next to the Business District. One HR Executive has tracked the length of internal “walk meetings” as considerably shorter than those in the break-out zones within the traditional walls of the office. “Ideas flow and employees return to their desks with renewed vigor,” he explained.

Luxury good houses have closely followed the lead from its European HQ in rolling out medical screenings for all, on-site fitness programmes including yoga and pilates, secured bicycle parking, monthly massages, stress counselling, blood donor clinics and first-aid training. Employees are actively encouraged to attend regular webinars on many aspects of wellness while numerous “Wellbeing labs” are rolled out in individual countries. Office décor and plants are changed regularly to promote interest levels and keep employee minds refreshed.

It was agreed that the melting pot of religions that we encounter across the businesses in Middle East needs to be recognised to promote employee happiness. All religions are individually celebrated in one of the local shipping houses. A Regional HR Head spoke about his push to ensure the acknowledgement of different faiths in the Dubai headquarters. It’s taken time, but now the local Emirati business owners warmly invite the families of employees to join parties to mark the occasions of Christmas, Eid and Divali amongst others.

Final Thought

Wellness is being embraced across the region, to a lesser or greater degree. We are particularly thankful to Lana Gigashvili, Wellness HR Business Partner at Schneider Electric for sharing the company’s very holistic approach to the topic. Ipek Karataslioglu commented, “This was a fascinating debate which spurred many of our HR friends to share positive progress around the 5 pillars of Wellness: Activity & Diet, Flexibility, Workplace Environment, Leaders, and Organisational Culture. Get it right and it seems everyone is a winner.”