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Promoting mental wellness in the workplace

Here are five actions organizations can take to address the rise in mental and substance-use disorders precipitated by the pandemic.

Nine out of ten employers surveyed by McKinsey reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the behavioral health of their workforce. During a McKinsey Live webinar, Liz Hilton Segel, McKinsey’s managing partner for North America, and Erica Coe, partner and co-leader of McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare, discussed how business leaders can unlock greater workforce fulfillment, productivity, and inclusion by prioritizing employees’ mental health.

Almost one billion people worldwide have a mental or substance-use disorder, and the number has only grown as a result of the pandemic. Lost productivity as a result of two of the most common mental disorders, anxiety and depression, costs the global economy $1 trillion each year. Forty-one percent of American adults—including 75 percent of Gen Z (18- to 24-year-olds)—surveyed by the US Centers for Disease Control in late June 2020 reported struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic. Although mental and substance-use challenges negatively impacted companies before COVID-19, McKinsey analyses suggest that their prevalence grew at least 50 percent during the 12 months following the pandemic’s onset and is resulting in more than $100 billion in incremental health spending in the United States alone. Most of 1,000 employers surveyed by McKinsey were aware of existing needs, and about two-thirds indicated they were taking action.

But are these actions meeting employee needs? While 71 percent of surveyed employers report that frontline-employee mental health is supported well or very well, 27 percent of frontline employees rate the offerings as only good or very good. Moreover, 67 percent of employees with a mental illness said finding access to care was very difficult, and 68 percent of employees reported a continuing stigma attached to mental and substance-use disorders in the workplace.

Hilton Segel and Coe cited the following ways that employers can create a better mental health future for their employees:

Make mental wellness a priority. Lead by example and demonstrate commitment from the top of the organization, appoint a senior leader who is accountable for employee well-being, and cultivate open lines of communication with employees.

Enhance the available mental health support. Offer mental health benefits that are on par with physical health benefits, and ensure easy access to resources for mental and substance-use disorders, including tailoring resources to the needs of particular employee groups. Focus on employee self-care, skill building, and resilience.

Communicate the available mental health support. Share information via multiple channels, and tailor communications for different levels of employee need. Have leadership promote mental health resources at regular intervals.

Cultivate an inclusive work culture. Implement campaigns to reduce the stigma preventing employees from seeking help. Ensure that the workplace environment supports employee well-being as a skill that can be learned, and train leaders to understand signs of distress. Foster workplace community and connectivity.

Measure and meet the existing need. Use routine surveys to monitor employee mental health and well-being, and learn whether the offered benefits meet employee needs. Connect well-being metrics with performance targets, demonstrating the organization’s commitment to responsibility and accountability.

Questions and answers from the webinar

In the midst of the pandemic, what have you been hearing from business leaders about mental health?
There’s no question that the past year has elevated this in the minds of CEOs. We know that mental health is a top workforce-health concern among employers, but it will take time to address fully. It’s becoming clear that we need to create a culture where employees can thrive, not just survive. As discussed in the webinar, this will become a key source of differentiation for employers in the future: our research shows that Gen Z employees are much more likely to view mental health resources as critical to their decision to choose or stay with an employer.

What are some channels you’ve found to be more effective for employers’ communication with employees about mental health?
Employers most commonly use their health benefits website, but there are other often more effective channels. C-suite-led communications can be very effective at reducing stigma, normalizing open communication about mental health, which is critical for unlocking the ability to work and feel your best. (Employees may be more likely to read a note from their CEO than a note from their HR team!) We’ve found it especially helpful for well-respected leaders to open up about their own personal challenges and approaches. We’ve also found forums on Slack or Teams to be effective and accessible as ways to announce events, share resources, ask questions, and foster connectivity on the topic.

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For more on this topic, watch the webinar recording and read the articles “National surveys reveal disconnect between employees and employers around mental health need,” “Five ways to design a better mental-health future for a stressed-out workforce,” “Pulling back the curtain on mental health,” “Unlocking whole person care through behavioral health,” and “Out of the shadows: Sustainably improving workplace mental health” and see the interactive content “Tracking US behavioral health service use during COVID-19.”

Additional resources
Thank you for joining today’s discussion. If you are feeling overwhelmed by a mental health need, please contact a crisis help line in your country. If you are a leader who is concerned about mental health challenges in your organization, please refer to these resources from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are many actions employers can take, including those suggested by Mental Health America, One Mind at Work, Shatterproof, and City Mental Health Alliance.

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