“What is any organization without the humans who work in it?” asks Natasha Hatherall-Shawe. “We spend so much of our lives at work; it’s vital to recognize staff for the people they are — with the challenges and opportunities that come with life.”
Hatherall-Shawe is the founder and CEO of TishTash Communications, a UAE-headquartered marketing communications agency, prioritizing women’s health by offering paid leave for fertility and menopause treatments, and other women’s health-related matters. As an all-female workforce, she explains that it was a natural approach.
“We have members who suffer monthly and some with endometriosis, and they work from home or take leave when they need to. Some team members have experienced miscarriages, and some have undergone fertility treatments, including egg freezing. We have always operated a ‘no-questions asked’ policy for all regarding personal and emotional health issues and given any support required,” says Hatherall-Shawe.
The company’s approach is a key aspect to employee retention. She points out that, after all, when treated well, staff feel “seen and heard,” which impacts the business’ bottom line too. “The cost of paid leave against operations and productivity is far outweighed by the positive loyalty and goodwill garnered from a workforce who favor their employers’ consideration for their physical and mental wellbeing and company culture. Furthermore, our positive company culture increases productivity.”
A 2020 survey noted that 59% say family-friendly policies have significantly been essential to their talent strategy, a figure expected to grow to 77% in the next two years.
Offering inclusive leave policies to support a diverse workforce is necessary, says Hannah Irfan Siddiqui, Managing Principal of Kaleidoscope DEI Consulting, an expert on diversity and inclusion issues within the workplace in the Middle East. “It is necessary for all businesses to recognize that their employees, to contribute to their work efficiently as well as maintain mental wellness, need work/life support,” says Siddiqui.
Some MENA companies are paving the way to adopting inclusive policies.
In March of this year, e-commerce giant Amazon recently announced its paid parental leave policy of six weeks for all new parents for employees across UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, regardless of gender. Birth mothers can add the six weeks of parental leave to their 14 weeks of maternity leave to avail 20 weeks of paid time off. Easing the burden of childcare and enabling fathers to actively participate in early childcare was a prime goal of the initiative, says Bikram Walia, Director of Human Resources, Amazon MENA.
At the same time, the e-commerce giant is also offering reduced work schedule options for primary caregivers as they transition back to work after parental leave. “Women across the globe have expressed that as they return to the workplace, they feel at a disadvantage (compared to their counterparts) who have not needed to take the same break from their careers,” Walia said. We believe that organizations that provide flexibility through efforts such as ramping back and fostering an inclusive culture have higher retention rates and build high-performing teams.”
Besides maternity and paternity support, some entities, such as Deloitte Middle East, have broadened the support to adoptions, expecting mothers of multiple births, and parents who go through difficult pregnancies and grief. Rana Salhab, People & Purpose Partner of Deloitte Middle East, adds, “[The onset of the] COVID-19 highlighted more than ever the critical role of caring for elderly parents, so we introduced elderly care leave for employees who are primary caregivers to their aging parents.”
Companies in the Middle East are also starting to offer a range of employee well-being programs to help manage stress and build skills to overcome life challenges. This is an aspect that Deloitte Middle East, which received recognition among World’s Best Workplaces 2022 and within the Top 20 Best Workplaces in the UAE and KSA in 2023, has prioritized, says Salhab. “It starts with breaking stigmas around mental health and speaking up.” One of their campaigns offers specialized confidential advice and treatment through the company’s internal platform, wherein employees can have a quick consultation or a deeper long-term intervention by a medical professional.
WIN-WIN FOR ALL
It’s a no-brainer that it’s beneficial for all. According to UNICEF, investing in early childhood development is one of the most effective ways to give children the best start to life while improving their abilities, skills, and productivity. Research suggests that family-friendly policies are linked to enhanced workforce productivity for businesses.
The same UNICEF report states that companies that see the value of offering family-friendly benefits reduce absenteeism, increase employee retention, and lower recruitment costs in many countries.
This is quite obvious in the feedback that companies have observed. At TishTash Communications, Hatherall-Shawe states that since formalizing the policy, the agency has received more than 1,300 CVs from women seeking new jobs. “Many applicants shared horror stories of how their health challenges were ignored at best or mistreated in their workplaces at worst. Alongside praises and gratitude, this ‘feedback’ means we must keep going until such policies are normalized cross-nations.”
For Amazon MENA, Walia noted they had received positive responses from new parents who have used their parental leave to cope with the everyday demands of caring for the baby. Listening to employee anecdotes has also helped implement new programs, such as equipping a mother’s room facility.
Siddiqui echoes, “Research has revealed that those businesses that invest in programs that facilitate employees in maintaining a healthy work/life balance end up not only improving employee productivity and psychological well-being but that these organizations gain an edge in human capital retention and attraction.”
Investing in such programs and benefits can boost a company’s diversity numbers. “It is seen that categories of employees underrepresented in the workforce (women, people of color, people with disabilities) require this support most to enter and remain in the workforce,” says Siddiqui. “Universal family leave (including offering parental leave options) has shown to impact greater diversity representation at hiring and manager levels. Providing employees with the right support for career progression without forcing them to make decisions about stopping/quitting careers to balance their life demands helps organizations attract and retain talent while also gaining employee loyalty.”
While boosting employee retention rates and diversity efforts is noteworthy, Deloitte Middle East’s Salhab also points out that having the policy in place is not enough. Employers need to ensure that practices and behaviors align with the “letter and spirit” of such policies, including the leaders’ behaviors, to have a multiplier effect on the organization. “We are not in a static world, so the organization needs to be agile enough to readapt to changing business and people needs,” concludes Salhab.