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UAE – Mental health should be a priority for expatriate professionals

Tanya Dharamshi

The opportunity to work overseas can seem like a great adventure to many people, but amid all the excitement there are a number of challenges which can easily be overlooked. Contributor Tanya Dharamshi, Counselling Psychologist – Priory Wellbeing Centre Dubai.

Today’s fast-paced and highly competitive work environment means the mental wellbeing of employees needs to be a key focus for businesses. The impact, in terms of developing and maintaining a healthy and productive workplace, can offer significant competitive advantages over the long-term. Mental ill health is still extremely common among employees, and it’s no different in the Middle East. While the UAE offers an exhilarating working and living environment, it can initially feel overwhelming for those who are often expected to hit the ground running, with little support with the myriad personal issues which are inherent with moving to a new country.

Finding accommodation and new schools, in addition to making friends and developing a personal network, can all be challenging at the very best of times, but throw into that mix a lack of social support, feelings of isolation and loneliness, a change in environment, customs and weather, worrying about things back home, and the need to adjust to a different culture, and it’s easy to see how expats can develop psychological issues, such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Obvious signs and symptoms to look out for include a loss of confidence and appetite, irritability and emotional outbursts, sadness, persistent physical ailments such as headaches, frequent infections, fatigue, substance abuse, such as smoking or drinking more, impaired judgement, worrying, recurring nightmares and excessive complaints about colleagues and/or management. These are all universal signs of work-related stress and ‘burn-out’, no matter which country you work in, and should be regarded as a ‘cry for help’.

Crucial to expat professionals in the UAE is a need for them to maintain a work-life balance. Of course, we would recommend this for all employees, but even more so for expats. They are often just here for work and it can be all too easy for them to focus totally on this aspect, letting small yet vitally important pleasurable activities slide, such as hobbies and quality time with family and friends. Having a confidante to talk to and discuss worries and concerns with is also a proven solution to problems. Regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep and eating a nutritious diet can also all hugely affect the way we feel and so shouldn’t be neglected.

As is the case in many countries, there still remains a certain stigma attached to mental ill health in the UAE. From patients we have treated and through our dedicated ‘mental health in the work-place’ programmes we run for businesses in the region, we know that employees remain reticent to discuss any mental health concerns through a fear of being judged as ‘weak’ and unable to cope with the demands of the job, and an overriding fear of losing their job.

However, there are now more government-led awareness programmes and initiatives in the UAE to open a real ‘conversation’ about mental health in the UAE, and which will help to create a culture which promotes mental wellbeing. Our team at has seen a notable shift in employer attitudes towards mental ill health during the last five years. There is now far greater acceptance, understanding and a genuine desire to learn more about the causes, treatment and recommended rehabilitation programmes for employees affected by mental ill health.

More and more businesses here are recognising how the mental wellbeing of their workforce is intrinsically-linked to the success of the company and as a result more are wanting to be able to spot the signs and develop tangible and realistic ‘support programmes’ for their employees. Mental health awareness days, campaigns and related-activities are also becoming more prevalent in the workplace.

Our advice for employers the world over is to encourage staff to confront their mental health issues and ensure they know the help and support they need is available; Highlight how the company recognizes the impact of mental ill health in the workplace and create a culture which promotes positive mental wellbeing

  • Ensure employees are educated on mental wellbeing and the early recognition of mental illness
  • Include mental health in workplace activities and awareness days
  • Highlight the company’s employee rehabilitation programmes, which should include phased returns and reasonable adjustments of duty, just as would happen following a physical illness
  • Raise awareness of the psychological harm associated with unhealthy behaviours, which may people find themselves reaching for in the early stages of a depressive episode, or anxiety disorder
  • Ensure an empathic manager or HR professional is available to talk to employees when required
  • Invest in stress management workshops

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