October 12, 2020 1:41 pm Published by Categorised in:

The World Health Organisation estimates that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, the most commonly diagnosed mental illness. That’s approximately 3.4% of the world’s population. For those suffering from mental health in the workplace, the estimated cost of depression and anxiety on the global economy is $1trillion a year from lost productivity through absenteeism and stress. These numbers can only be estimates, especially given the shame and guilt which often prevents mental health sufferers from seeking help.

In MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries, the most frequently cited problem for mental health is stigmatisation. This means that there are almost no statistics for mental health in the workplace for this region. If we can assume that the mental health rates in MENA countries are equitable to the UK (which is optimistic), then 1 in 6.8 employees suffer with mental health problems in the workplace. However, with the UK’s commitment to long-term mental health alleviation and generally higher education and psychiatric support system, the prevalence of mental health issues in MENA workplaces is likely far higher.

Why?

So many reasons. Compared to many European countries, healthcare systems in MENA countries are ill-equipped for identifying and treating mental illness. Dr Shaju George, a psychiatry specialist from the UAE, explained that the poor mental health provisions in MENA countries are the result of ‘ignorance, lack of motivation, non-availability of facilities and properly trained professionals, lack of government funding and insurance coverage’. This means that declining mental health is less likely to be recognised and prevented.

Stigmatisation directly links to shame in mental health sufferers, often exacerbating symptoms. Internalising the problem increases mental stress and the feeling of isolation. Culture plays a big role here: in many MENA countries, mental illness carries strong religious implications and there is fear of shaming the family unit. Again, repressing the problem only increases it.

What about in the workplace?

Workplaces in MENA countries often lack the tools to communicate and track stress levels and employee wellbeing. This can have two effects: employers are less likely to identify mental health issues which are triggered by factors external to the workplace (such as family stress), or the workplace itself will be the cause of mental health struggles. Generally, workplaces in MENA countries have less monitoring of authority and employees have fewer accessible rights. This often results in workplace bullying and the abuse of power. 

For example, MENA countries have the highest global rates of international migrant workers due to the region’s oil-based economy. In Saudi Arabia, these migrant workers exist within the Kafala system: a sponsorship-based employment structure where responsibility for workers’ treatment is solely in the hands of Saudi nationals. Within this structure, workers often get stuck in negative workplace cultures, where exploitation and bullying can continue. This limited access to freedom and rights endangers workers’ mental health.

What’s the result of all this?

Well, the situation doesn’t look rosy. Given the lack of professional mental health structures in MENA countries, without intervention these mental health issues will only increase. Already, COVID-19 has increased mental health figures, especially around financial stress and fear of unemployment in the workforce. 

So what are we doing about it?

This is where Kaktus.AI comes in. Kaktus is developing an Artificial Intelligence model, called KaktusBrain, to track and prevent mental illness in the workplace. Using early detection tools, KaktusBrain can predict and prevent the escalation of mental health triggers. Aware of problems in the MENA region, Kaktus is developing an Arabic version of the Smart Surveying tool, which will assist HR managers in tracking workplace wellbeing and supporting employees’ mental health. 

Some countries in the MENA region are likewise taking steps towards positive change. In 2020, Saudi Arabia released a Quality of Life Programme which presents a roadmap for increasing citizens’ engagement in sport, cultural and environmental initiatives, as well as advancing work-life balance, by 2030. All of this promises improvements in mental health and wellbeing. Things are already getting better. 

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