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5 ways to design a better mental health future for a stressed-out workforce

Almost 41% of Americans struggle with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic, but many companies remain ill-equipped to address the problem, says this McKinsey executive.

5 ways to design a better mental health future for a stressed-out workforce
[Photo: Ryan Stone/Unsplash]
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Despite growing up in a family of therapists, the past eight months have revealed to me how difficult it can be to find the “right thing” to say to family, friends, and colleagues who are suffering. Even business emails seem to have taken on new weight: Many have struggled writing the phrase “Hope you are well” knowing that many of us are not, in fact, well. 

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COVID-19 has resulted in more Americans experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. A recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost 41% of American adults struggle with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic. That number increases to 75% among those 18 to 24 years old. The top three challenges employees cite during this time are anxiety over layoffs, burnout, and mental health–ranking well above other concerns like financial security, childcare, and homeschooling responsibilities. Women were approximately 1.5 times more likely to report mental health as a challenge as compared to men. And at the same time, Latino and Black Americans are consistently reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression than whites. This all poses a serious threat to our current and future workforce, our economy, and our collective success. 

We know how mental health occurs along a continuum, with thriving and positive mental health on the one end, and serious mental illnesses or addictions at the other. In between, however, there are many shades of substance use, anxiety, depression, and other conditions that vary in intensity and impact. Every leader must ask: What are we doing to help our employees stay physically and emotionally healthy? 

Far from being a “soft” issue, there is an economic cost to this humanitarian clarion call. For companies, the loss of productivity due to poor mental health can be as high as $1 trillion per year. The pandemic has also created a disproportionate mental toll on women in the workplace causing 1 in 4 senior-level women to consider leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers since the start of the COVID-19. 

Businesses need to do more to help employees cope during these turbulent times. Consider the following actions where we’re beginning to see impact based on feedback from our clients’ employees and our own colleagues at McKinsey. 

Open lines of communication

Demonstrate commitment from the top and lead by example, communicating that during COVID-19 and beyond it is important to address stress, mental illness, and substance use.

This can start with “pulse checks”–emails sent to employees that ask two to three short questions about their work, life, mentorship, and health. Or, it could be as simple as, “How are you feeling?” and “What’s giving you the greatest stress this week?” Always provide a reminder on how to access mental health resources and professional help for those in immediate crisis.

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Understand and meet the need

Understand the impact of psychological distress, mental illnesses, and substance use disorders on the workforce; this includes employee surveys, benefits reports, disability claims, and productivity assessments.

While anecdotes can illustrate the human impact of mental illness, at McKinsey, we also look at metrics and data, all of which is anonymized and confidential. This aggregate information can pinpoint which departments have employees with higher rates of distress. Further, an analysis of disability claims and benefit reports can allow insights into whether we are meeting employees’ needs.

Know the signs of distress

Invest in training to equip leaders with the skills, language, and norms to support your colleagues.

Twenty years ago, when someone on my team told me he had to take leave to address his mental health, I was crushed–I completely missed the distress signals and wasn’t there to support him when he needed it most. It is a deep regret and learning moment I hold with me to this day. It is also why I’m so committed to the mental health training we are rolling out for our leaders. 

Consider a short training for team leaders that focuses on recognizing signs of distress, making clear that it’s driven by a genuine desire to connect employees with the right support and resources. When companies make mental health a priority, teams can in turn offer greater value to their customers or clients. For example, one of our recent projects at McKinsey involved helping interested members of a medical staff receive 90-minute training sessions on building team resilience and deepening relationships.

Make help available

Embrace strategies to address key stressors, improve behavioral health literacy, promote mental wellness, and prevent substance misuse.

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Make it easy to access help, ensuring everything from self-help tools to high-quality treatment providers are visible, affordable, and available virtually as well as in-person. Be clear about which options for mental health are available via telehealth services. 

Embrace and encourage self-care

Create an inclusive culture where those seeking treatment and self-care are supported, recovery is celebrated, and social connectivity is a priority.

Maintain an open dialogue, and ask if your colleagues are taking regular breaks, prioritizing sleep, and checking in on one another. My teams make it a point to discuss what we’re doing over the weekend, how we’re staying healthy, and whether we’re all getting enough rest. 

As the lines of our personal and workspaces blur, I remind my team to take extra care for renewal and try to lead by example. That means unplugging and finding family or individual activities that restore the spirit. Recently, in my house, that has meant bringing a journal to the dinner table each night so that my husband, daughter, and I write a line of gratitude; no repeats! Whether it’s reflection, reading, exercise or spending time with our family, it is up to us to practice self-care and show vulnerability by admitting our own struggles.

This isn’t going to be easy, and there’s not a “one size fits all” solution. It will require us to learn an entire new vocabulary on mental health, and many organizations will have to undertake large structural and cultural transformations. But even when the challenges seem great, I know we can lift each other up. Every day I draw inspiration from my colleagues. I know you do, too. It’s up to us to harness that inspiration into tangible change that can address mental health across the workforce. 


Liz Hilton Segel is the managing partner for McKinsey in North America.