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Are workplaces in the Middle East clinging to presenteeism culture?

If you’re neglecting burnout and showing up to work for the sake of it, it's high time you rethink your work-life balance.

Are workplaces in the Middle East clinging to presenteeism culture?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Saleem Salman has a nine-to-six job at a Dubai-based real estate company. On a typical day, he has several calls to make and answers emails late into the night. He works a target-driven job and finds himself at the office regardless of his mental and physical health. Salman’s story resonates with many in the workforce.

Experts say that workplace stress has always been there. However, factors such as COVID-19, job insecurity, and the looming financial crisis have added to the pressure.

Many organizations have equated “working longer” with “being more valuable to the company,” says Dr. Kirin Hilliar, a psychologist at OpenMinds Psychiatry, Counselling and Neuroscience Centre.

Remote work blurred the lines between professional and personal time, with many companies expecting employees to be reachable round the clock.

“Some companies demand excessively long work hours from their employees, which can lead to a negative impact on their personal lives and relationships,” explains Aaron Portero, Managing Director of Connect Group.

These issues can contribute to the workplace’s social pollution which is a concerning aspect of modern work culture.

In Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a survey found that 61% of employees said workplace stress made them sick, and 7% said they had been hospitalized in the US. In the UAE, 68% reported significant work-related stress in a poll by health services company Cigna Insurance.

“Work cultures that promote competition over collaboration, involve high levels of micro-management, do not give employees autonomy and foster a blame culture, rather than sharing responsibility for failures and using these as an opportunity to learn and grow can make employees more vulnerable,” says Dr. Hilliar.

The problem stems from how many employers see employees as “just another resource that needs managing” rather than the heart and soul of what makes a company succeed.


Work-life balance is more than just a buzzword. Setting boundaries is vital to avoid physical and mental wear and tear. Taking time away from work to rest and engage in activities that differ from those performed at work can enhance overall work performance and boost employee retention rates.

Workplace social pollution leads to irritability, impatience, withdrawal, insomnia, or physical health symptoms.

“Drawing boundaries can be hard in toxic environments; hence assessing the work culture before accepting the job is important. It is also important to learn how to set clear boundaries with managers and colleagues and understand that they need to prioritize themselves and their needs,” says Reem Shaheen, a Counseling Psychologist and Managing Director at BE Psychology Center for Emotional Wellbeing.


How do you set boundaries where unfair workplace practices seem like the norm? These normalized behaviors go beyond overwork; they involve being physically present at work despite illness, exhaustion, or personal problems.

“Organizations that give credit to people who work longer hours and over weekends send the wrong messages on what is valued,” says Nathan Farrugia, Managing Director of Vistage, an executive coaching organization.

Establishing boundaries that facilitate optimal work performance is the organization’s and its employees’ joint responsibility.

“Employees also have a responsibility to communicate their needs and boundaries to their employers and to prioritize their personal lives. By working together and creating open lines of communication, we can create a healthier and more sustainable work culture that supports both professional and personal growth,” says Portero.

Experts say the vicious cycle of presenteeism (showing up to the office but not engaging with the work) can be dangerous, as it usually occurs due to overworked or overstressed employees and results in further burnout.

“It is important to strike a balance where employees are not expected to work excessively, but fulfill their responsibilities to their job. Employees shouldn’t feel like they have to drop everything during their off time,” adds Portero.

Dealing with this work environment requires employees to set boundaries around their working hours.

“Business owners and managers need to remember that issues of presenteeism and re-hiring if someone does leave costs time and money, so it is in the organization’s interests to keep current staff satisfied with their work,” says Dr. Hilliar.


Burnout is officially recognized as an illness by the World Health Organisation, urging organizations to support their employee’s working experience.

Experts say that despite burnout being an individual experience, the primary causes are organizational imbalances between job demands and resources that employers can manage.

The solution? Certainly not free pizza and nap rooms; more needs to be done to resolve the long-term effects of burnout.

“A content employee is likely to perform better and be more productive in their work, so it is in the company’s best interest to maintain a healthy work environment,” says Portero.

Change needs to happen from the C-suite to entry-level employees.

“This may be tricky,” says Dr. Hilliar, because of small organizations’ low operating margins. However, it should start with “breaking down an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”

“Organizations must be viewed as a unified team with complementary (not competing) goals. This will help companies realize that staff who feel valued and appreciated will work hard in their contracted hours,” she adds.

Many companies are backtracking on flexible work conditions, mandating that employees spend more time in the office. “Leaning away from remote work can have the potential benefit of employees being able to remove themselves from their workplace clearly,” says Dr. Hilliar.

Employees must learn when to switch off to avoid feeling that work is never-ending by planning their tasks and limiting their work hours.

Farrugia recommends flexible work practices to deal with the ill-effects of presenteeism.

Addressing toxic workplace cultures, redesigning work to be inclusive, and supportive of individual learning and growth is crucial for employers.

“We need to stop measuring performance in hours; it’s what we do with it that matters. We should prioritize sleep, exercise, and recovery time,” says Farrugia.

These should then be reviewed, allowing “check-ins” with employees and providing a healthier and more positive organizational culture.

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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