In the late ’90s, Liz Hilton Segel was managing a group at consulting firm McKinsey & Company when she noticed that something was off with one of her team members. They were working around the clock on a fast-paced project, and his work was uncharacteristically missing the mark. He confided that he was in the midst of a depressive episode and needed to take a break from work—immediately. “He literally left the office that day, at 5:00 on a Wednesday,” Hilton Segel recalls. “And I had just completely missed it. I could have seen what was going on—I could have seen it in his physical appearance, in the way he spoke. But I didn’t.”
The experience has stuck with Hilton Segel, who now is the global leader of McKinsey’s industry practices. As the issue of mental health in the workplace has gained more attention in recent years, Hilton Segel wants to make sure that employees have the support and interventions they need and that employers are taking the right steps to address these issues in the workplace. “We need to teach people to look for it, to ask the question, to check if someone’s okay,” she says. “This is about changing people’s lives.”
THE BENEFITS OF SUPPORTING MENTAL WELL-BEING
Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, aren’t new to the workplace. For as long as there have been W-2s, workers have struggled to balance their mental health and well-being with the rigors of their jobs. But in the past two years, the number of workers grappling with mental health issues has risen sharply. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 30% of adults have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression—a nearly threefold increase from before the pandemic. “Every employer has seen the rise in mental health issues,” says Katy George, McKinsey’s chief people officer. “We’ve seen a whole set of depression, anxiety, and isolation issues go up significantly.”
Failing to support employee mental health can be costly for companies. Productivity can suffer, and talent can head for the exits—sometimes abruptly. And companies with a reputation for failing to support their employees’ mental health may find it harder to recruit top talent. By contrast, investing in employees’ mental health offers plenty of upside for companies. For starters, those investments can provide a considerable return: The World Health Organization estimates that every dollar invested in treating depression and anxiety yields $4 in productivity gains.
Beyond productivity, providing this kind of support for employees can help them do their best, most innovative, and creative work. “If you’re in a stressed-out, sleep-deprived state, and I ask you to be creative or deal with a tense situation, you’re just not going to have it,” Hilton Segel says. “Part of the benefit for an employer is giving people the fuel or the energy that allows them to actually display the level of creativity or emotional resilience that they need.”
A CULTURAL CONVERSATION
So how can companies take a more proactive approach around employees’ mental health? The first step is recognizing that supporting mental health requires more than offering benefits such as increasing coverage for therapy. “We need to move mental health from a benefits conversation to a cultural conversation,” George says. “It’s about rejecting stigma and making people feel safe talking about their mental health needs.”
McKinsey is moving in this direction through initiatives such as learning programs that help employees manage their own mental health, as well as support the health of their colleagues. It’s rolling out training programs to help employees identify colleagues who might be in trouble and to offer support if they see signs of mental illness or distress. As part of that work, McKinsey created a program called Mind Matters, which includes training 150 “mental health champions” at each of McKinsey’s locations around the world. These individuals can assist employees through the process of supporting colleagues experiencing mental health challenges while also serving as a bridge to help employees in crisis access the full slate of benefits available to them.
The firm also is extending these conversations beyond its walls. It’s launching McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) in order to catalyze action on health across continents, industries, and communities. “One of MHI’s main areas of focus is mental health and well-being,” Hilton Segel says. “We hope to foster a global conversation on how employers can advance the state of the art, learn from each other, and materially improve the health of their employees and communities. In the same way that McKinsey Global Institute focuses on economic productivity, MHI will focus on the well-being of all.”
The pandemic has forced many companies to rethink their relationships with employees, from their expectations for how, when, and where work gets done to how they can boost employees’ on-the-job satisfaction. Supporting employees’ mental health is a key piece of that puzzle. “Work is such an important part of our lives, and employers have an obligation to support well-being in our employee base,” Hilton Segel says. “And there are tremendous benefits to doing so, because it can unleash creativity, innovation, and productivity in the workforce.”