To mark World Mental Health Day 2022, the World Health Organization has urged making “mental health and well-being for all a global priority.”1 With the growing disease burden related to brain-health conditions, moving this aspiration into reality requires bold action and deep commitment from a broad range of stakeholders—with employers playing a critical role.
In our McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) publication, “Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?,” we highlighted what affects employee mental health and well-being. Now we examine who is most affected—and how leaders are in a position to improve employee mental health and well-being at scale by rethinking the workplace via a lens of a modern understanding of health. Research indicates that positive outcomes—such as job satisfaction and work engagement—are correlated with feeling included and supported, and with freedom from stigma or overwhelming workloads.
The insights discussed below are based on a global survey MHI conducted across 15 countries and nearly 15,000 employees. To learn more, see the sidebar, “Survey scope and methodology.”
Employers have the opportunity to move the needle on burnout, to explore ways to help workers struggling with mental-health and well-being challenges, and to explore ways to create the healthiest environments for employees.
Most survey respondents have experienced mental-health and well-being challenges
Mental health exists along a continuum, and the majority of employees are likely to experience some symptoms of poor mental health and well-being at some point during their working years.1
According to our survey across 15 countries, around 60 percent of employees have experienced at least one mental-health challenge at some point in their lives—a figure consistent with other global research.2 For leaders, that means that the vast majority of their employees are directly or indirectly affected by mental-health-related challenges.3
Companies have a role to play since the implications of inaction in response to this crisis is tremendous. Those touched by mental-health and well-being challenges can’t simply be excluded or treated in isolation from the workforce; they are the workforce.
No demographic appears immune to mental-health challenges
Our survey reveals that employees face mental-health challenges irrespective of their country, industry, age group, role, or gender. Leaders around the world can consider how they want to prioritize helping their employees.
While specific groups may experience different challenges, our survey data reflect that no demographic group is immune. One example: a recent McKinsey Health Institute report found poor and worsening mental health among Gen Z respondents in Europe.
Failing to address the effects of mental-health and well-being challenges is a missed opportunity for employers
Most adults spend at least a third of their employable years at work.1 The mental-health challenges create a cost for employers. Our global survey finds that employees experiencing at least one mental-health and well-being challenge (nearly three in five)2 report worse employee experience metrics. They are three times more likely to experience toxic behaviors and four times more likely to want to leave their organization. They are also more likely to report low job satisfaction, engagement, or other signifiers of positive workplaces.
Yet employees may be reluctant to mention mental-health or well-being challenges, as those facing mental-health challenges may grapple with stigma. As observed in a previous McKinsey survey, a substantial share of employees experiencing mental-health-related challenges indicated they would avoid treatment because they didn’t want anyone finding out. This terrible paradox can exacerbate challenges that are often invisible to others.
The first step often includes asking employees about the state of their mental health and finding out who may need more help.
Across all 15 countries surveyed, respondents say toxic workplace behavior has the largest effect on their intent to leave and burnout symptoms
Many organizations have responded to the mental-health challenge facing employees by dedicating unprecedented resources to employee mental health and well-being.1 As laudable as these efforts are, focusing on providing access to resources alone may lead employers to overestimate the impact of their employee programs. They may be underestimating the critical role of other workplace factors in supporting employee mental health and well-being.
Our global survey data suggest that improving workplace factors, such as eliminating toxic behaviors, boosting inclusivity, and creating sustainable work, can be several times more predictive of employee mental health and well-being than providing access to resources alone.
Moving to better mental health and well-being for employees everywhere
As we have discussed in previous articles, employers have the opportunity to move the needle on burnout, to explore ways to help workers struggling with mental-health and well-being challenges, and to explore ways to create the healthiest environments for employees. As employers open the aperture to look beyond the reactive management of poor mental health to the proactive mitigation of its drivers, they can reinforce what is—and is not—acceptable. For example, companies may benefit from reinforcing behaviors that leverage the power of kindness—which recent research has highlighted as a powerful path toward greater empathy and compassion for others, along with greater well-being for the individual practicing kindness.2
Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?
We also recommend employers revisit the following questions:
- Do we treat employee mental health and well-being as a strategic priority?
- Do we effectively address toxic behaviors?
- Do we create inclusive work environments?
- Do we promote sustainable work?
- Are we holding leaders accountable?
- Are we effectively tackling stigma?
- Do our resources meet employee needs?
A long-term comprehensive approach is likely correlated to organizations gaining the full potential benefits from improved employee health. If individuals, businesses, and countries widen their understanding of health, they may be able reap the benefits of gains in life expectancy and quality of life.
If you’re experiencing a mental-health crisis, please contact a crisis help line in your country (988 in the United States). For more information about World Mental Health Day, please refer to these resources from the World Health Organization. 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. There are many actions that employers can take, including examples from: MindForward Alliance, One Mind at Work, Mental Health America, and Shatterproof.