Time for Happier Businesses

For major US corporations shifting from shareholder-first success metrics to focus on wellbeing, the UAE offers a playbook to happiness.

By Xische Editorial, August 27, 2019

Source: Volha_a/ Shutterstock

Source: Volha_a/Shutterstock

Is it time for a brand overhaul for business goals? Corporate goals have traditionally focused on maximising profits and increasing shareholder value. Doesn’t that seem outdated given our increasing awareness of the positive role that wellness can play in our lives? As health considerations continue to gain prominence in the conversation, leading businesses are updating their playbooks. 

This month, the Business Roundtable released an updated statement on the purpose of corporations. The group represents powerful chief executives in the United States and is considered one of the most important business lobbying organisations in the world. “Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity,” the new statement says. “We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

The new approach is punctuated by redefining business relationships with employees, local communities, and suppliers. While not explicitly targeting the role of wellness in business, the update is a sign of tremendous progress in the private sector.  The new targets reflect a significant change from previous comments made by the Business Roundtable. Back in 1997, the group adopted a decidedly shareholder-first approach, arguing that the primary (and perhaps only) goal of the private sector was to maximise returns for shareholders. 

The shift in tone reveals growing concerns in the United States and beyond about income inequality and other social ills stemming from a lack of concern for the majority of the workforce. The workforce is exhausted, distant, and agitated in the US. Such sentiments have been echoed by leading Democratic candidates for US president and have made similar appearances in other countries around the world. 

The Business Roundtable’s statements don’t dive deep into details about how corporations should better adapt to the needs of all stakeholders. Thus, it is time to consider how the entire private sector ecosystem can benefit from a shift away from a sole focus on shareholders. The key, at least when you are thinking about people in this ecosystem, starts with wellness, health, and happiness. 

We have recently argued that wellness should be an economic benchmark on par with GDP. The insistence that growth and profit be the sole indicator of the health of an economy is simply outdated. But how can wellness initiatives be introduced while still maintaining economic growth and decent returns? Easy, look at how Scandinavian countries and smaller countries like the UAE handle the issue. 

Nordic countries have used handsome social safety nets to ensure that citizens are not overworked and balance productivity with wellness. Consider the allowances for childbirth. Both parents in Scandinavian countries are entitled to parental leave for a newborn child. This takes the stress off of new parents and enables a stronger family bond at home, which will have effects for both parents and children later in life. 

While the Scandinavian approach is ideal, it is not practical in larger countries that don’t benefit from the same heterogeneity that defines the Nordic region. This is why the UAE model is so interesting and replicable. 

Government-led initiatives such as the National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing have placed the wellbeing of residents at the core of the UAE’s national strategy. Given the fact that over 200 nationalities call the UAE home, this is an incredible task. The secret is strong Government leadership and the willingness to invest in future technologies that improve the lives of citizens. The incorporation of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence throughout the Government, for example, results in less time waiting to complete mundane tasks like registering a vehicle. It might sound small but that time saved really improves the wellness of residents. 

The Government also invests handsomely in health awareness programmes that are designed to get people moving and healthy. The Business Roundtable might have been focused on the private sector but they could learn something by borrowing a page from the UAE’s public sector playbook. 

The bottom line is that where there is a will there is a way. Business leaders in the US are clearly aware that the health and wellbeing of the workforce and local communities across the country are significant factors in the productivity of the private sector. In order to return maximum profits to shareholders, steps also need to be taken to ensure that people are happy. By investing early in the population, countries like the UAE have demonstrated how best to approach this issue. Incorporating the latest technology into the work of government, investing in great infrastructure, and spearheading awareness campaigns about wellness are some of the tactics the UAE has taken over the past two decades. The budding knowledge economy in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is evidence of how this approach has worked.