In recent years there has been a pronounced shift from communicable to non-communicable diseases in terms of the biggest health problems facing the Middle East.
Also known as chronic diseases, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are often exacerbated or even caused by the way we live our lives. Usually slow to develop, they tend to be long-lasting and can take a serious toll on the wellbeing and productivity of those affected.
So here we take a look at practical steps you can take to reduce the impact of some of the region’s most pressing health concerns on your workforce and your business.
1. Ischaemic heart disease and stroke
Ischaemic heart disease has replaced lower respiratory infections as the top cause of mortality in Arab countries, accounting for more than 14% of deaths. It is now also the leading cause of ill health, up from fifth place in 1990.
Also known as coronary heart disease, it’s caused by a build-up of fatty plaque deposits in the arteries that feed the heart. There is a strong connection between this narrowing of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, with bad habits such as smoking, unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity. It’s also linked with high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which may be sparked by the same poor lifestyle choices.
Those same factors can also lead to strokes, which are now the third most common cause of ill health, up from sixth place. Both heart disease and strokes are on the rise in the region, especially for women, who often struggle to be active due to social constraints. It goes without saying that an increase in these conditions among your employees can severely impact productivity.
What can your company do to help combat heart disease and stroke?
If you haven’t already, the most powerful thing you can do to help is to put a wellness programme in place. Even very simple changes can make a positive difference. For example, how about putting up signs next to lifts suggesting taking the stairs and making healthier options available in your canteen?
Ongoing stress can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. You should encourage employees to acknowledge if they’re feeling under stress at work. Their line managers can then work with them to address the root causes.
Ongoing stress can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. You should encourage employees to acknowledge if they’re feeling under stress at work.
You might also consider arranging active staff outings. For example if you’re based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you could plan trips to places such as the skiing or skating venues. Or you could encourage employees to take part in the annual Walk for Life or similar events. You could also share easy-to-make, healthy recipes with your staff and encourage healthy snacks of fruits and nuts in the office.
According to a major study led by the University of Washington, depression is now the fifth most common cause of ill health in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). And for women in the region, it’s the number one health issue.
Characterised by persistent sadness and loss of interest, depression can cause fatigue and interfere with a person’s ability to work, and may even lead to self-harm.
Interestingly, the researchers noted that depression is more commonly reported in comparatively wealthy nations. So it’s a problem that hits all social groups – any of your employees can suffer from mental ill-health.
What can your company do to combat employee depression?
With any mental health issue, the most important first step is encouraging people to speak up if they’re suffering. You can then help them access the support they need.
With any mental health issue, the most important first step is encouraging people to speak up if they’re suffering.
Ideally you should have experts in place, who will know the best way to help. If you’re based in the UAE you might consider using the services, which provides mental health support for employees. Their services include a confidential support hotline and life coaching and they charge the employer a flat amount per employee.
Alternatively consider engaging a local provider of talking therapies, which may include counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. If you’re in Dubai, you might also encourage employees to take advantage of the free depression and anxiety support group that meets twice monthly at the German Neuroscience Centre.
3. Low back pain
Low back pain now ranks as the leading cause of disability in the MENA region, and is the fourth most common cause of ill health, up from ninth place in 1990.
Low back pain is often associated with poor and awkward posture or movements, heavy physical work or lifting, or long periods of immobility and whole-body vibration. Bearing this in mind, it’s easy to imagine how it might originate (or get worse) in the workplace.
A comprehensive report on work-related low back disorders produced by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work also lists some less obvious work-related correlations. These include low social support, low job satisfaction, low job content and poor work organisation.
What can your company do to combat back pain among employees?
Musculoskeletal aches and pains are more common as we approach middle age, but that doesn’t mean your employees should just have to put up with them. There are some practical steps you can take to help.
Your HR team should make sure employees know that if they are experiencing back pain they suspect might be related to their work, they should flag it up. You can then provide them with a workstation assessment to pinpoint and address any issues. If you haven’t already developed a relationship with an occupational health provider or ergonomic consultancy, do so now.
Your HR team should make sure employees know that if they are experiencing back pain they suspect might be related to their work, they should flag it up.
In order to avert the issues in the first place, consider bringing in local experts to provide workshops on good working practices to avoid stressing the body. You could also provide handy guides on best practice for workstation setup, and stress the importance of varying activities throughout the day on your intranet or displayed around the premises.
Healthy employees = healthy business
Taking action to address these top health concerns in your workplace will help you reduce both their human and financial impact. You may also find that these measures boost employee satisfaction and even enable you attract and retain the best people, by demonstrating that you are a caring employer.
There’s no doubt, then, that taking steps to tackle these issues head-on makes sound business sense.