Medical experts are discovering more and more blue-collar workers suffering from depression in the UAE – yet the basic medical insurance given to such workers doesn't cover treatment for depression, which means professional help and support is unavailable.

It is a topic that is being brought into the open by mental health professionals such as Dr Mohammed Tahir, director of the American Wellness Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, who has spent time volunteering in labour camps. He said that he had found a large number of workers suffering from depression and anxiety and that they had inadequate medical care for access to a psychiatrist.

No formal studies have been undertaken on the mental health of blue-collar migrant workers, the majority of whom hail from rural India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and have left behind tightly knit communities, which serve as support groups. For many, working in the UAE may be their first time away from home.

Thamer Fahmi, reward manager at AkzoNobel, said that while some multinational organisations do offer psychiatric cover to white-collar employees, it is limited. Hopes for lower grade employees and those at smaller organisations do not appear bright.

“Based on current medical inflation, the price of psychiatric care in the UAE would be very tricky to handle, as usually most of the diagnosed patients require long-term care – which would affect the cost of the policy. Patients would also require different solutions – such as drug treatment or counselling sessions – which, again, would end up costing a lot,” said Fahmi.

“Unless the government enforces such coverage and works on endorsing programmes, employers will almost certainly try to limit high use of the medical insurance policy – and with the basic care level, there are always going to be a lot of exclusions.”

The answer could be prevention rather than cure. If companies are not going to provide adequate medical cover to employees to treat mental health issues, HR could take steps to implement a ‘buddy system’, whereby workers have someone to look out for them, suggested Fahmi. Or businesses could run workshops with medical providers with the aim of catching symptoms early.

“Organisations could also engage with a third-party health administrator and set up a psychiatric hotline especially for employees in stressful situations, such as the loss of a loved one, to help them deal with any potential issues as they arise,” said Fahmi.

Businesses that take the lead on addressing depression, without fear of being labelled as the cause of it, should be rewarded for their empathetic approach towards the employee and their wellbeing, said Fahmi. “I think the risk of doing nothing about employee depression and facing the consequences outweighs the potential responsibility of causing it,” he added.

Warren Conolly is a wellness solutions consultant in the UAE. He said: “This is a sensitive topic because many of these employers don’t even begin to broach the subject of mental health.

“Psychological health and stability is very difficult to measure, but every employee should have access to mental healthcare, and every organisation should have a coach or mental healthcare specialist on their books, which would help in some way toward reducing these conditions,” he added.

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