Stress in Dubai

All work and no play makes Dubai one sick city

‘I ran American Hospital’s emergency department for four years,’ confides Dr Randall Philipps, originally from Canada. ‘Every single shift, somebody would come in having a full-blown panic attack, thinking they were dying from a heart attack. I thought; “There has got to be something more we can do for these people besides giving them some Valium and sending them back out the door.”’

And so just over a year ago Synergy Integrated Medical Centre was born, one of the only clinics in the city to treat both physical and psychological ailments, using a combination of conventional and complimentary treatments. ‘By far the biggest part of my clinic involves working on emotional and stress problems,’ explains Randall. And yet, the irony is, Randall himself is stressed. ‘Since growing from a company comprised of just myself and my wife to a growing business with 19 staff in only 15 months, I’m suffering the same problem as my patients: a complete lack of work/life balance.’

The old adage rings true: all work and no play makes Dubai one sick city. But, cry overworked pen-pushers, surely in today’s competitive times, stress is blocking arteries the world over? ‘The increase in choices has definitely given us a more stressful modern society,’ agrees Dr. Joachim de Posada, a professor from the University of Miami who recently lectured in Dubai. ‘People find themselves paralysed, terrified of the opportunity cost of making any one decision.’ Add to that the inescapable 24-hour ‘crackberry’ worldwide web work culture, sensitive international politics and crunching credits and you have a global freaking phenomenon.

‘Stress levels are on the increase,’ concurs Dr. Klaus T. Kallmayer, chairman of Dubai Healthcare City’s German Heart Centre. ‘This does not only apply to Dubai, but is a general phenomenon worldwide. However, it is amplified here, due to the city’s rapid growth.’ Indeed, after a week spent interviewing doctors, psychologists, medical centres, life coaches and nutritionists, professional opinion is in stark – and, frankly, quite distressing – agreement: Dubai is suffering a stress epidemic.

‘Dubai is suffering a stress epidemic’

Can this be backed up with hard facts and stats? Unfortunately, apart from the fact that the number of deaths caused by high blood pressure in Dubai is three times higher than in the surrounding emirates, there is little available research on the subject – mostly due to that main cause of the disease: the city’s extreme makeover. ‘The development in the UAE is so rapid that there has not been time to gather the relevant stats,’ Klaus explains. ‘The case numbers we see in the clinic are, however, rather high and show a pattern different from in Germany, the US, UK and other countries I have worked in.’

For now then, our evidence lies with the health sector – in the high number of stress-related symptoms they see day in, day out.

‘I see many with muscular skeletal disorders, back pain and panic attacks – all caused by stress,’ reveals Professor Josef Shokry Costandi of Al Qassimi Hospital, who’s currently working with the Ministry of Health. ‘Patients often feel they are suffering from frightening physical problems,’ states Klaus. ‘Common symptoms are palpitations, like frequent skipped beats or a racing heart; dizzy spells; unexplained shortness of breath; or longer lasting, often floating chest pain unrelated to physical activity.’

Meanwhile the city’s record high levels of diabetes and cardiovascular disease can count stress as a potent cause. And according to Belinda Rennie, nutritionist at the Osteopathic Health Centre (, ‘As a generalisation, people here find it harder to eat well and exercise compared to where they were living before because of the pace of life and the lack of access to healthier options, especially in workplaces.’ It is therefore, ‘stress that causes poor dietary choices – rather than the other way around.’

‘Living away from home is stressful’

Dubai’s mushrooming growth (and therefore its highly competitive atmosphere) is quite clearly also its number one lure. Its exceptional benefits attract a predominantly expat community – another reason for the city’s generally frazzled state. ‘Living away from your own country is stressful, even if you have moved for positive reasons,’ explains Professor Josef. ‘While living and working with people from various backgrounds can be stimulating, language problems, differences in temperament and reaction to mistakes are all dealt with in different ways, often leading to irritation and frustration on all sides.’

Then there’s the fact that your residence visa is dependent on your employment – or that of your husband/wife – creating an unhealthy focus on the importance of your job. ‘In other countries, you’d have to have a good reason to work after the clock rings,’ Randall points out. ‘Here you’re expected to stay or someone will come in and replace you. You have to produce or go home. And then the stress is written all over the roads, in the way people drive home.’

But the effects of stress don’t stop there. ‘Sexual impotence used to be a huge problem in the Emirates,’ states Dr Ali Numairy, President of the Emirates Medical Association. ‘Fortunately, with the introduction of treatment [such as Viagra], this problem has improved a lot in the past year.’ And adults aren’t the only ones feeling the strain. ‘We treat children at the centre too,’ reveals Randall. ‘Many parents have no time for their kids and they therefore react to that – they don’t naturally have their own stress.’ And, of course, the problem doesn’t stop with any one demographic. Members of lower-income social brackets suffer another more financially and often physically-driven distress, working for hours in the beating sun for little pay.

‘Redress the stress’

It’s all very well blaming our environment for how tightly we’re wound, but it’s an environment most of us have chosen – and there’s still plenty you can do to redress your stress before it starts making you ill. Evidently, the first option would be to stop working so hard. ‘You have to get out of work! Have some fun, go to the beach!’ cries Randall, who asserts that salt water disperses negative energy.’

However, with rising rents, food and living costs, for most, fleeing the office at a decent hour simply isn’t an option. In this case you can at least ensure you and your boss value the work you are doing. ‘If you don’t feel like what you’re doing matters, whether at home or at work, you’re bound to feel far more stressed out about it,’ explains Alan W. Altmann, a leading life coach who recently lectured in Dubai. ‘Your boss has to give you a voice, and then honour that voice by paying attention to it.’

Outside the office, the number one form of advised stress relief is exercise, whether it’s individual or team sports. ‘Not only does it release endorphins, but you feel like you did something for yourself for once and not the boss,’ states Randall. Alternatively, you can also sit very, very still. ‘It may be clichéd, but meditation works,’ Alan states. ‘Your form of meditation may just be down time – reading, watching movies, seeing friends – whatever helps calm your wired interior monologue, which is essentially what stress is.’

Fortunately, if a brand new government campaign is to be believed, help, or awareness at least, is at hand. The UAE ministries of health and education, Abu Dhabi’s Health Authority and the Emirates Medical Association all joined forces this month to launch Relief, a national awareness campaign on pain management, focusing on one of its main causes – our old friend, stress. ‘We will be taking the matter very seriously,’ states Emirates’ Medical Association’s Dr Ali. ‘Through regular public awareness events at malls, cultural organisations and schools, we’ll communicate the message that stress is not something to be ashamed of or ignored.’

Tell your boss to expect their call. ‘We’re developing a program for business owners to help them understand that instead of ignoring the pain of their employees, effective measures can now be taken to prevent lost productivity and increase job satisfaction.’

The real key to bashing stress on the head, however, is to stop talking and start doing. ‘The link between theoretical understanding and action taken is the most crucial part,’ emphasises Dr Klaus. ‘Stress’ risk factors do not hurt until it is too late, when action is uncomfortable and, therefore, often avoided. We have to continue hitting the drum.’ Or going for runs or hitting the beach – whatever medicine it is your stressed head’s calling for.

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