All Work and No Play: Workplace Leave in Qatar
Employment, Pensions & Immigration
Mental health has been brought to the fore globally with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but how seriously is mental health taken in Qatar? While there has been a shift on the importance placed on mental health in Qatar, with Qatar's 2030 vision placing emphasis on developing a healthy population, both physically and mentally, some argue the pace of change in the private sector has been slow. In this article, we look at how the laws in Qatar address the issue of 'mental wellbeing' and how it is approached within the workplace.
The Ministry of Public Health launched the Qatar National Mental Health Strategy (QNMHS) in 2013 which sets out a vision for a mental health system in Qatar. The vision was about providing good mental health and wellbeing for the people of Qatar supported by integrated mental health services with access to the right care, at the right time and in the right place.
The strategy has five objectives, including mental health promotion and prevention, provision for comprehensive and integrated services, strengthening of mental health leadership and governance; and the improvement of information systems, research, and evidence-based practice.
The QNMHS has achieved a significant amount over the years, including: setting up 11 mental health awareness training programmes, putting in place a mental health school package and a suicide and self-harm prevention initiative, increasing inpatient beds, establishing a dedicated forensic mental health team, establishing specialist substance misuse and addiction services, establishing new community mental health facilities and teams and putting in place new child, adolescent and women's mental health services, as well as many other research and governance programmes, to name a few.
In 2018, the QNMHS launched 'sehanafsia.moph.gov.qa', which was Qatar’s first mental health website translating to “Your Mind Matters”. The website was launched in line with the first objective of the strategy, to raise public awareness and reduce associated stigma. The website offers online support to those that need it. The QNMHS is continuing to progress its mental health objectives and strategies (further detail on key actions can be found here).
The Ministry of Public Health recognises the importance of dealing with mental health issues arising as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic on its website. A new helpline to provide support for people experiencing mental health problems, as a result of the pandemic, has been set up by Hamad Medical Corporation in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health and the Primary Health Care Corporation.
It is clear that the Ministry of Public Health is striving to change perception and encourage mental health illness to be considered more seriously. The Ministry of Public Health acknowledges on their sehanafsia website that "stress is one of the most common causes of work-related illnesses and workplace absenteeism." It is time for mental health to be at fore of employers' agenda when considering employee wellbeing, health and safety.
It is worth noting that within the context of the current COVID-19 restrictions and many employees being required to work from home, the Qatar Financial Centre has recently published a practical guide featuring recommendations and key information on how to best prepare the workplace for a safe and productive return of employees following the recent restrictions. Within such guide there is a section dedicated to mental wellbeing and how to reduce the negative impact on employee mental wellbeing.
The Mental Health Law1 has been established to address the rights of citizens and residents in relation to their mental health treatment.
Under the Mental Health Law:
These definitions are interesting when considered in the context of occupational diseases or "work injuries" which have occurred in the workplace. The definition of "work injury" under the Qatar Labour Law2 is "suffering by the worker from any of the occupational diseases listed in schedule No (1) to this law or any injury resulting from an accident happening to the worker during the performance of his work [...]".
The Labour Law lists various occupational diseases and injuries which may cause injury or disease to an employee, with mental health illness not being included. Examples include; deafness, various types of poisoning, cancer, as a result of handling various materials; and permeant disabilities listed include loss of limbs and other body parts, loss of senses, and loss of certain organs.
Article 100 of the Labour Law states that "The employer shall take all precautionary measures for protecting the workers during the work from any injury or sickness that may result from the work performed in his establishment or from any accident, defect or breakdown in the machinery and equipment therein or from fire" (emphasis added to the text).
This definition of "work injury" and the drafting of Article 100 is quite wide and could therefore conceivably be extended to apply to mental health injuries.
Looking at the position in the public sector, the Human Resources Law3, which applies to civil servants and government related agencies, states that "death caused by overwork or stress and fatigue shall be considered a work-related injury, provided that it is proved by a medical report issued by a competent medical authority" and "in the case of death or total…or partial disability, the employee or his/her heirs shall be entitled to compensation for the work-related injury". This suggests that a mental state such as stress can be classified as a work-related injury for which compensation is payable if it partially disables, totally disables, or causes the death of the individual. If stress, which is generally defined as a state of mental or emotional strain, can be considered to be a workplace injury, then "Mental Health" as defined under the Mental Health Law may arguably also be considered in the same way.
If mental health constitutes a 'sickness' rather than an occupational 'injury' then it may be arguable that mental health (as a sickness) is caught under Article 100 of the Labour Law which states that precautionary measures should be taken by employers to protect employees from "any injury or sickness that may result from the work performed in his establishment".
Whilst sickness is not defined as an 'occupational injury', it is clear that employers are responsible for ensuring that 'sickness' of the employee does not occur as a result of their employment. Whether the employee will be compensated for such 'sickness' caused in the workplace remains to be tested.
In practice, it is generally harder to establish when and where a mental health 'injury' occurred, and whether any preventative measures could have been taken by employers to limit the risk, and the extent to which the workplace contributed to the mental illness. However, given the current initiatives and drive by the Qatar Ministry of Public Health to address and educate the issues surrounding mental health illness, it would be prudent for employers to consider mental health from an employment relationship perspective, and what preventative measures can be put in place to limit risk to the workforce in line with employers' existing health and safety practices.
There are various laws in Qatar which touch upon the issue of 'mental wellbeing'; however there is currently no definitive process or guidance in place as to how mental health should be dealt with in practice, particularly within the workplace. That said, the introduction of a law dedicated to mental health in 2016 was a clear indication that this is an important focus area for Qatar, which is all the more pertinent now as the world tackles a global health crisis. While the Mental Health Law focuses mainly on how patients are treated for mental health within a treatment facility, rather than its reach in everyday practice, the definitions within the law provide some further clarity and are helpful in gauging how the authorities are starting to view mental health.
Qatar's National Health Strategy seeks to target employee mental health issues by 2022, and improve the research data on mental health in order to provide evidence-based mental health policies, plans and services. The strategy also sets out to increase community awareness about mental health. To this end, given Qatar’s ongoing healthcare initiatives and the current worldwide focus on mental health, it will not be surprising if further guidance in this area is issued to clarify how mental health should be dealt with in practice, and particularly within the workplace context.
1 Law No. 16 of 2016
2 Law No. 14/2004 on the Promulgation of the Labour Law
3 Law No 15 of 2016
Note: Qatari Laws (save for those issued by, eg. QFC to regulate its own business), are issued in Arabic and there are no official translations, therefore for the purposes of drafting this article Clyde & Co LLP has used its own translations and interpreted the same in the context of Qatari laws, regulation and current market practice. Should you have any questions in connection with this article or the legal issues it covers, please contact Emma Higham (firstname.lastname@example.org).