UAE workers expect stronger health benefits in 2021, in wake of COVID-19: report

Aetna International study reveals a necessity for more comprehensive health provisions by employers in the coming year, particularly in the areas of mental health and telemedicine

The COVID-19 crisis has ensured that the provision of comprehensive health benefits for employees will become a top priority for UAE organizations in 2021, according to new research from Aetna International.

Aetna surveyed over 1,200 UAE businesses and their employees during the unprecedented changes in operational models and working conditions made necessary by the global health crisis. To more than 80% of the UAE workforce, mental and physical wellness are now more important than they have ever been, as remote employees battle with issues of isolation and frontline workers face a variety of stress-inducing factors, from increased workloads to personal safety.

The study showed that 65% of UAE workers are eager to return to the social environment of an office. But during the months of the pandemic, across the nation’s workforce, expectations have changed regarding health benefits provided by their employers. Two thirds now agree that employers should spend more on plans, and 76% call for more comprehensive coverage in light of the pandemic. Provisions for mental health stand out as the greatest priority, with 72% saying it should receive comprehensive coverage in group plans, while some 64% say the same of physical health.

“While there is definite reason for optimism here in the UAE with the availability of vaccines, we know we still have a long road ahead of us. The study reveals that the pandemic will leave marks, particularly in the area of mental health. And it is incumbent on employers to start addressing these issues sooner rather than later,” said David Healy, CEO EMEA at Aetna International. “The UAE Government has long been a leader in health and wellness, looking out for nationals and residents alike, and issuing strong edicts, such as for mandatory health insurance. But the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that employers need to play their part in offering more comprehensive coverage.”

In line with employee sentiment, two thirds of UAE-based HR professionals agree that there is now a greater expectation for employers to take more responsibility for their employees’ health, beyond the office or workplace and 71% said the COVID crisis has heightened employee expectations around the range and scale of health-and-wellness benefits provided by employers.

The good news for employees is that organizations plan on doing more to address these changing employee health benefit expectations, particularly those relating to mental health. The research showed that while only 29% of UAE organizations currently offer virtual or in-person mental-health counselling services, almost two in three (63%) are exploring the possibility of giving their employees access to such services. Similarly, while only 31% currently provide access to “mindfulness” apps, a further 45% are considering this option. Addressing concerns over physical health, 29% of surveyed organizations currently offer gym memberships, but 51% are considering it; and 24% offer nutrition support, with 53% exploring the option.

“Aetna has a long history of community-mindedness in our offerings,” Healy added. “Our telehealth services, such as vHealth, and overall-wellbeing programmes like Aetna Mind are ideal for the needs of the UAE market. But serving a community means remaining in step with what people are going through and what they are focused on. COVID shifted the focus of the individual, and employers need to face up to that when designing their health benefits.”

Healy called for organizations across the country to work with their insurance providers to explore how they can expand employee benefits packages, particularly in the areas of mental health, telehealth, and wellbeing applications.

“Delivery of these services, in alignment with the concerns of the workforce, can not only help the UAE build a world-class healthcare system but it can help UAE organizations attract and retain top talent which will translate to more productive and engaged employees and tangible boosts to both micro- and macroeconomic successes,” he continued. “As a case in point, of those workers polled, 34% said employers would need to improve health benefits to be attractive to candidates, and 24% said those benefits would directly affect their decision to stay or move on.”

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