Skip to main content

UAE vs UK: Why are employee attitudes to workplace technology so different?

In July 2020, we published the Digital Health Dilemma, a survey and report that asked employees in four regions (US, UK, Dubai and Singapore) for their thoughts about workplace technology and digital health and wellness tech:

  • Did it help them stay healthy?
  • Did it make them stressed?
  • How could employers use technology and digital advancements to help employees improve their health and well-being?

For the purpose of this survey, workplace technology encompasses things like collaboration and communication platforms, smartphones and the Internet of Things, while digital health and well-being tools and services include things like wellness apps, fitness trackers and virtual or remote access to primary health care or professional services.

A key observation was the difference in attitudes and experiences of employees in UAE versus those in the UK — the former being more positive about technology and its impact on health, wellness and work/life balance, than employees in the UK.

Why do workers in the UAE have such different views on the role of technology and its impact, compared to those in the UK?

We wanted to explore this difference to help employers better understand the needs of employees and make more informed decisions about corporate health and wellness benefits, to help ensure that their workforces thrive. So, we spoke to Aetna International’s Head of Global Corporate Communications and Senior Director Product & Marketing in EMEA, Catherine Darroue, whose experience of both regions would shed light on the question and give employers the guidance they need.

The expat context in UAE

Before looking at specific attitudes to workplace tech in the UAE — and in particular Dubai — we asked Catherine about the unique expat context in the country.

“Ninety percent of the UAE’s population are expats,” explains Catherine. “As such it’s not like other cities where expat communities are minorities embedded in a more dominant local culture.”

Around half of expats in the UAE are from the Indian sub-continent, a large group are from the West (Europe, USA, Australia) and many are from other Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

Employee attitudes to digital technology

Our survey showed that employees in the UAE were more positive about the role of digital technology in the workplace than those in the UK.

  • 20% more likely than employees in the UK to see workplace tech as helping to connect teams across various locations and provide support at busy times
  • 23% more likely to see tech as helping to balance remote working for a good work/life balance
  • 21% more likely to see tech as improving communications with colleagues.

Catherine explains some key factors in driving the UAE employees’ particular positivity towards digital technology.

UAE Government: champions of digital

“The UAE Government has invested in and championed digital technology,” she says. Without the legacy of anachronistic infrastructure that hinders innovation and progress in many Western — and in particular European — nations, the UAE was able to quickly develop and implement digital solutions for many governmental processes and procedures, from registering vehicles to paying fines. “Almost everything is done through an app or online portal.”

Read: 10 must-have iPhone apps for Dubai expats.

Has this created a culture which believes technology can solve problems? Does this explain the different attitudes of employees in the UAE towards workplace technology and digital health and wellness tech, and those in the UK — where there is less positivity around the role and potential of technology to solve problems? Catherine says, “In my experience, these results stem from the strong emphasis the government places on digital innovation combined with the fact that the UAE has a younger population — digital natives who know, understand and rely on tech in all aspects of their lives, and certainly more so than their older counterparts.”

The UAE tech market is currently worth an estimated $5.5 billion and is continually credited as one of the region’s fastest growing industries. At the time of writing, it was announced that the UAE had just successfully launched its Mars probe. The emirate is also embracing more practical tech, including vertical farms for producing food as well as the region’s first virtual hospital.

UAE: a highly connected society

“Dubai is a relatively small place, so it’s easy to access 4G and stay connected wherever you are. And people use technology to stay in touch with family and friends from their home country so much here, wherever they come from.”

“Life in Dubai can have a transience to it sometimes — this is the nature of an expat society,” Catherine adds. “People come and go, so it can be harder to create long-term bonds. Technology therefore plays a key role in keeping us connected with people in their home country and friends when they leave.”

There are many challenges to relocating to a new country, but surveys such as this one show that missing friends and family has the power to impact health and well-being the most. As such it is essential for expats to have a support network — a combination of staying in touch with friends and family at home, and becoming a part of the local community in their new home. As our Corporate Wellness Trends 2019 article indicated that: “Corporations should work with health insurers who do more than just offer medical benefits, but work to support and manage an expat family’s emotional health and well-being.” And technology plays an important role in facilitating this.

Read: Expat friendships Keeping connected and meeting new people

The influence of workplace tech on mental health

We asked our survey respondents: Which of the following could your employer offer to help support your mental health? What followed was a list that included providing employees with:

  • Access to mindfulness apps
  • Access to mental health appointments online
  • Access to mental health services through my phone

We also asked: Do you think your employer can help you achieve your health goals/achieve better emotional and mental health through the use of technology?

For each of these questions, employees in the UAE were more likely to agree that their employer could use technology to help improve their mental health.

This may be due to a combination of positivity about the potential for technology to solve problems, as well as the UAE’s fast paced work environment and expats’ separation from family and friends, all of which result in a need for robust mental health support.

We ask Catherine: Are employers in the UAE aware of tech overload and are they supporting their staff?

“Yes, employers in the UAE are aware that employees in the country have unique mental wellness concerns and are endeavouring to support their staff.  This has been brought into sharper focus recently as many organisations have successfully transitioned to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this has worked well overall, we know that these circumstances have given rise to a new series of mental health challenges for employees.”

By 2017, mental health support for employees in the UAE was already a priority, one news story announcing: “More companies are offering mental health support services for employees, including confidential phone lines, as awareness and recognition of the problem grows in the UAE… doctors said there is an increasing need for such services.” In the same year, a new law in the UAE addressed suicide and shifted authority from judicial authorities to medical professionals.

News from 2020 shows the progress being made, not least from the expanding range of local services:

  • Leaves Dubai, a group for women going through difficulties in their marriage or divorce
  • Mental Health UAE, a comprehensive online directory and support network for all things mentalhealth in the country
  • Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step programmes
  • Safe Space, started in 2019, is a free community including mental health support through events and other activities
  • Lighthouse Arabia support groups include therapy and wellness centres in the UAE.

To help expat members support good mental health, Aetna International has a range of mental health tools as part of our employee assistance services (EAP), many of which use innovative technology. For example, vHealth and Wysa, which offer free access to 24/7 text-based support designed to help them navigate a range of mental well-being challenges, including anxiety, stress, motivation and confidence.

Read the various ways in which technology is being used to support good mental health.

Delivery culture

“There’s also a real delivery culture in the UAE too,” says Catherine. “Ordering things online and having them delivered to your home. There’s a strong service and online-to-offline culture here.”

This will be reassuring news for employers in the region: the digital mindset is a good foundation to deliver digital physical and mental health benefits to employees.

Virtual health technology is already transforming health care for people around the globe. For example, Aetna’s own vHealth app allows members to organise delivery of repeat prescriptions and conduct video appointments with doctors to help them access care remotely. Such technology also helps to reduce the cost of care, which could make care accessible to lower-income groups.

Research suggests that there is still work to be done to improve the online-to-offline pharmacy market due to some low-quality products and subsequent distrust. But it is easy to see that with sensible regulation, the market will grow as it has in other regions.

A younger population

“The UAE has a younger population who are used to using digital technology. So it’s part of the fabric of the everyday, and is thought of as a means of facilitating or enriching everyday living.”

UAE population age data

  • 25–54 years: 61%
  • 55–64 years: 3%
  • 65 years and over: 1%

UK population age data

  • 25–54 years: 41%
  • 55–64 years: 12%
  • 65 years and over: 16.5%

Positive attitudes

“Expats make a conscious choice to move here and most will have a better life, so there’s a general optimism and openness to learning new things,” Catherine says.

2019 survey data showed that the UAE was one of the happiest countries in the world.

“For middle and higher-income employees, life can be easier here. There is a strong service culture, many families have live-in help and the transport infrastructure, such as the metro and road system, help with commuting.”

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has driven adoption of a unique, science-based programme to analyse happiness levels, asking people to rate public services with emoji-style reviews, assessing the impact of change and rewarding good behaviour, instead of punishing bad. With such impetus behind and focus on well-being, it is easy to see that progress will continue breaking down taboos around mental health and supporting both mental and physical health with innovative programmes.

Mobile use

Employees in the UAE are almost 20% more likely (68%) to feel pressure to answer calls outside office hours than those in the UK (47%).

“There’s much more of an ‘always-on’ culture here,” says Catherine. “People here are very focused on work, getting ahead and saving, especially if they’ve left their family behind, so work takes up more of their life. It’s a very fast-paced environment and employers need to be mindful of the impact to the emotional and mental well-being of their staff.

“We know that corporate health support affects employee job choice. Research we conducted in 2019 showed that two-thirds of people will not consider working for an organisation unless they offer mental health support, particularly around stress. And this is very important for millennials, where a value culture is more important than job security. So to future-proof the organisation and their talent pool, organisations really do need to think about how they're supporting employees with both mental health and emotional health and well-being.”

Read: Tackling polarised perceptions in corporate health and wellness

UAE, technology and the Covid-19 pandemic

At the time of writing in July 2020, the UAE had 55,573 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 335 deaths. New cases peaked in May 2020 but declined, with a second spike in early July.

Catherine explains that Dubai was very quick to adapt to the pandemic — able to do so because of its relatively small and connected population. “It’s easier to educate and inform when you have a smaller, largely digitally savvy population.

“Health care is very good here and the government’s been very responsive: quick to react, putting in place testing programs and other contingency measures to control the spread of the virus.”

In July 2020, many UAE companies deployed temperature detection tech to help the safe reopening of local businesses, including installed and handheld thermographic cameras.

Working from home

Flexible hours and working from home are key facets of the move towards improved working practises and corporate culture. Employees in the West are demanding these options and employers recognise its value in talent retention, as well as keeping the workforce happy and healthy by enabling employees to achieve a better work/life balance. Employers are also becoming more aware of the always-on culture and subsequent tech overload as part of improved mental and physical health awareness at boardroom level.

Our survey data found that:

Employees feel working from home makes them less stressed about work

  • UK = 52%
  • UAE = 77%

Employees think working from home helps them work shorter hours

  • UK = 55%
  • UAE = 75%

Employees feel remote working increased the pressure to respond to work outside office hours

  • UK = 47%
  • UAE = 68%

Working remotely is more stressful than being in the office

  • UK = 33%
  • UAE = 53%

While these data points suggest a contradiction, they might propose that expat employees in the UAE feel the impact of technology more — whether for better or worse. It also supports Catherine’s point that expats in the UAE work hard to achieve in their jobs and potentially work longer hours to do so. Expats in the UK don’t feel the pressure to work outside work hours but also don’t see working from home as helping them work less or be less stressed about work.

“People here would like balance,” she says. “Working from home can reduce the commute and allow quiet time for focusing on key tasks, but there is a desire to come together. Many people live in apartments, so they appreciate the change of scenery. Going into an office or place of work also allows people to see others and people want — or even need — that human contact and support.”

In the West, younger workers have been driving acceptance of working from home as companies seek to attract and retain the best talent. It will be interesting to see whether the UAE’s young workforce drives similar changes in the UAE — changing perceptions of jobs as being solely office-based — especially as more and more data and professionals suggest that increased flexibility leads to increased health and well-being — and, importantly, productivity.

“Organisations can often struggle to strike the right balance between keeping employees healthy and driving productivity — but these concepts are delicately intertwined,” says Dr Meg Arroll, specialist health behaviour change psychologist at 10 Harley Street. “Prevention requires a significant investment when they’re looking at the bottom line. But there is evidence to say that prevention works as far as productivity is concerned. Companies will get more out of people if they feel valued, healthier and not overly stressed.”

There are lots of useful guides to support successful remote-working in our resource hub, in particular 5 ways to support remote workers during coronavirus.

Will Covid-19, lockdown and subsequent remote-working change traditional views of working from home in the UAE?

There may be more adoption of homeworking or telecommuting in the West, but mainly in key sectors such as the creative industries and humanities. There are plenty of sceptics who want their teams in the office every day, nine to five.

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has made a big impact on these traditional views of working practices. Many companies had a choice between allowing employees to work from home or furloughing, some companies in the UAE made redundancies and/or salary cuts. There are doubtless traditionalists whose views have softened towards the practise, as they and their teams have diligently worked from their dining rooms — communicating via video conference, instant messenger apps and email.

Digital technology is the only reason this has worked. Had the pandemic struck 20 years ago, few people would have been able to work from home: no work laptops, few domestic computers/laptops, no broadband, no cheap/accessible video conferencing.

Does Catherine think the more traditional companies in the UAE will change their minds about remote working? “Possibly,” she says.

Yes, there are lots of office-based roles in the UAE, staffed by people who may be able to work remotely if companies allow, but Catherine points out that there are many non-office jobs that cannot be done remotely.

Crises are very effective at driving cultural change as millions have witnessed around the world. Familiar hugs and handshakes have disappeared from public life and masks have become commonplace. As well as social gestures, the recent pandemic has driven development and adoption of various technologies into overdrive, especially video communication, creating new social norms and behaviours. Ways of working have also been impacted, with increased flexibility around hours and locations, as organisations change their rules to keep workers working. It will be interesting to observe whether these adopted behaviours, processes and company policies will stick.

Read: Rethinking staff health and retention in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Data, privacy and the UAE

Our research showed that employees in the UK were more concerned about misuse of personal health data, and are more reluctant to share it – even anonymously, or for the benefit of company culture or fellow colleagues.

Would you be happy for your employer to use your anonymised health data/profile if it was used for the following reasons?

To improve company culture

  • UAE = 80%
  • UK = 59%

To improve workplace policies

  • UAE = 82%
  • UK = 68%

I would not worry at all about my employer having access to my data

  • UAE 53%
  • UK 22%

Do employees trust authorities in the UAE more than employees in the UK? Or is there a culture of privacy in the UK among workers? Why are employees in the UAE less worried about data misuse?


It is clear that life in the UAE is very different to the UK. This is driven by the expat context, working life and the highly competitive job market, but also by the dominant culture.

Attitudes to technology mirror these trends with employees in the UK feeling less positive about the role of technology in the workplace than their Dubai counterparts — including its role in supporting mental and physical health and well-being.

As a result of the UAE’s continuing commitment to future tech and specific responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are more ways to support employee health and well-being than ever before. Apps and services from divorce counselling and AA to virtual health are improving care for the UAE residents. The same can be said for the UK, where, despite statistical resistance, companies such as Aetna International are introducing virtual health services such as vHealth and Wysa.

Comprehensive health care is essential for any expat in any part of the world. What that is and how it is provided is changing — and digital technology is facilitating that. It is important to work with a provider who:

  • Understands the specific needs of expats based on their situation and location
  • Offers benefits which can be tailored for individuals and/or businesses to ensure employees stay happy, healthy and productive.

It will be interesting to see the impact of Covid-19 on attitudes towards remote working in both countries and how it affects demographics in the UAE. This last point is particularly important for the health care industry, which provides so many expats with their mandatory health coverage. Cate suggests that the population may shrink by 10%. With the UAE’s 8.45 million expats, that means 845,000 fewer policies. As such it’s essential to be competitive and offer the best possible health support.

If you’re a broker or an employer looking for the right international health care solutions for your clients or employees, contact Aetna International today to find out how we can help. Get contact information for Aetna International offices on every continent, including email, telephone, fax and postal address.

Read: Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: A British expat compares the emirate cities

Read: What do expats really think of Dubai?

It’s important to note that health insurance is mandatory for expats living and working in the emirates, so why not get a quote and see how Aetna International can help keep you healthy in your new home?

Aetna® is a trademark of Aetna Inc. and is protected throughout the world by trademark registrations and treaties.

We use cookies to give you the best possible online experience. See our cookie policy for more information on how we use cookies and how you can manage them. If you continue to use this website, you are consenting to our policy and for your web browser to receive cookies from our website.