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How can companies in the Middle East break the mental health stigma?

Experts say the time and resources invested in mental health initiatives have solid returns.

How can companies in the Middle East break the mental health stigma?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Did you know in the GCC region, approximately 15% of the population suffers from mental disorders, and an estimated 75% of people choose not to seek professional help? 

These stats are unsurprising for Khawla Hammad, Founder and CEO of Takalam, a UAE-based online counseling platform for mental well-being. “The prevailing stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health challenges create reluctance in openly discussing or seeking help. Seeking support is sometimes perceived as a sign of weakness.” 

Farah Dahabi, Clinical Social Worker and Director at LightHouse Arabia, a Dubai-based mental health and wellness clinic, agrees, adding that harmful cultural messages such as “vulnerability is a sign of weakness,” “boys don’t cry,” or “you’re being too sensitive” contribute to people feeling shame, which results in people struggling in silence. 

Although significantly more open than in the past, the cultural landscape still relies on a collectivistic approach, says Devika Mankani, Holistic Psychologist at Hundred Wellness Clinic and Co-Founder of Chearful.com. “This means keeping systemic and personal problems private.”

Aside from known cultural factors, access to affordable and reliable mental health care is challenging. “Insurance doesn’t always cover the cost; ultimately, the individual continues to hide behind their pain and dysfunction,” says Mankani. Moreover, there are only 2.58 psychiatrists per 100,000 across the six GCC countries.


More attention to mental health is especially critical in corporate environments, and open communication and supportive leadership can promote awareness. “The opportunity to thrive due to a positive work culture is undeniable. The opposite is just as true. Toxic work environments can cause significant mental health problems,” says Mankani.  

Several companies have become proactive in supporting mental health initiatives. 

Maan Aboulhosn, Head of Operations Glee Hospitality, says, “While many mental health issues may originate from personal challenges, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the workplace can also be a major source of stress, impacting mental well-being.” 

Brian Habibi, Co-Founder and Chief of Bayzat adds, “There is an obligation on employers to make sure they are creating an environment that enhances the well-being of their staff. This starts with defining and promoting a company culture centered around cohesion, inclusivity, and teamwork.”

“These can’t just be themes highlighted in the CEO’s annual address to employees; these principles must be reinforced in every meeting and interaction,” adds Habibi.

Habibi says Bayzat offers tips on general wellness and mental health to assist employees. “There is a business case to be made not just for listening to employees but for doing whatever is necessary to make them feel heard.” 

The situation is dire, as PwC found in a survey that 30% admitted to being reluctant to seek help due to the fear of being judged by employers and harming their career progression in the UAE.

Drawing from his experience, Aboulhosn says Parlour Boutique has implemented various initiatives, such as frequent one-on-one discussions and evaluations. 

“Normalizing these conversations helps reduce the stigma and fosters a sense of community and understanding among our team,” he says.

To help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance, Aboulhosn believes in implementing flexible work arrangements. “This can help employees achieve a better work-life balance, reducing stress and improving overall well-being.”


The time and resources invested in mental health initiatives have solid returns. According to PwC, for every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for depression and anxiety, there is a $4 return in improved health and productivity. 

“Organizations have good reason to invest time and effort into supporting their employees,” says Habibi. “Employee wellness programs can reduce company healthcare costs while driving many benefits, including higher productivity, better customer service, lower attrition rates, and much more.” 

He cites research showing how wellness programs can reduce the number of sick days by 27% and lower insurance costs, as a result, by as much as 26%.

Hammad says that while the ROI for mental health initiatives may not be immediate, the long-term investments in employee mental health create a more resilient, productive, and positive work environment, enhancing the company’s overall sustainability.

Aboulhosn has seen such benefits first-hand. The company’s positive work culture has reduced absenteeism, as employees are more engaged and motivated to contribute their best efforts.

Further advocating the value of engagement, Habibi points to a Gallup study that showcased how disengaged employees cost global companies nearly $350 billion a year. In the UAE, he says, this figure is estimated to be $10.6 billion annually

“Engaging employees and managing their experience within your business could be the deciding factor for retaining top talent or attracting new potential stars,” Habibi emphasizes, especially with quiet quitting and career cushioning growing louder.

And such initiatives have become a magnet for top talent: “Skilled professionals are drawn to companies that genuinely prioritize their employees’ well-being,” says Aboulhosn.

On the other hand, Habibi points out that a disengaged workforce will likely result in poorer performance and higher turnover. “This has a financial impact in terms of the costs required to recruit and train new staff, as well as negatively impacting your company culture and morale,” he says.


Against these shifting mindsets, even governments are prioritizing mental health, like the UAE’s National Program for Happiness and Well-being. 

“Covid-19 highlighted the pressing need to ‘humanize’ work environments and company cultures and helped accelerate the dissolution of many of the taboos that previously existed around mental health,” says Habibi.

Hammad says she has observed the same positive trend based on the growing demand from various companies and organizations for Takalam’s mental well-being programs in the workplace, mainly from UAE and KSA-based entities.

“With strong government support and increased investments in mental healthcare, I anticipate such initiatives will become the norm for regional companies, as is already common in other parts of the world.”

While some companies may be more prepared to embrace such initiatives based on their size, industry, and corporate culture, Aboulhosn says the overall global movement towards prioritizing mental health in workplaces is likely to influence the region as well.”

But there is still a long way to go, as the Middle East is diverse, and stigma remains pervasive. 

And this is why open conversations encouraging clinics, hospitals, and workplaces to incorporate best practices in mental health help break the barriers that people suffering from these mental health struggles may face. 

“When the population sees these initiatives, they feel more open to seek help and encourage family and friends to do the same to work towards their optimal self,” says Mankani. 

Mankani adds that we all have a part in encouraging non-judgmental mental health dialogue. “More people are struggling with mental health than you would think. Talking openly, without judgment or discrimination, about mental health invites others to come forward to seek help.”

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