The authors of this article describe the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of three important employee groups: mothers, senior-level women, and Black women. They establish a case for change and offer tactical solutions that employers can implement to create productive and inclusive environments where individuals across the mental health continuum can thrive.
Covid-19 has profoundly impacted employees’ well-being. Recent employer surveys conducted by McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare show almost a third of employee respondents have reported anxiety over layoffs or furloughs since the start of the pandemic, 28% have reported burnout, and 21% and 20% have reported stress over childcare and the health of loved ones, respectively.
Though employed female respondents have been similarly likely to indicate that returning to work will have a negative impact on their mental health as their male counterparts, they are 12 percentage points more likely to report worry that they’ll have less flexibility to take breaks and set their own schedule upon return. And while most employers are aware that Covid-19 has strained the mental health of their employees, there is a significant gap between how employers and employees perceive workplace mental health offerings.
According to the most recent Women in the Workplace report, an annual study on women’s progress in the workforce from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, three groups reported distinct challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic that were driving them to consider downshifting or leaving their careers: mothers, senior-level women, and Black women. Some of the largest barriers were increased strains on mental health — particularly increased levels of anxiety, stress, and grief.
Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their caregiving responsibilities will garner negative perceptions of their work performance. Women in senior-level jobs, who have long-reported feeling a need to work harder than men, are now burning out at a higher rate — 39% compared to 28% of men. And Black women — in addition to receiving less support from managers and experiencing both microaggressions and acute discrimination at work — are grappling with the toll of systemic and highly publicized violence toward the Black community in the United States and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black Americans.
Employers must proactively place people and their mental wellness at the center of their business strategies. Admittedly, that is easier said than done and will require time, innovation, and long-term commitment. But the key is to get started. We recommend five actions that business leaders can take to advance women’s mental wellness in the workplace.
Make mental health a priority.
In a survey of U.S. employers, just 31% reported improving access to mental health resources as a priority. It is important to remember that while improving mental health is a personal journey, the process is influenced by structural factors, including the support provided by coworkers, supervisors, teams, and institutions.
As such, it’s incumbent on company leaders to drive awareness and action on mental health. Women are 25% more likely than men to report feeling uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on sensitive issues or work-life challenges with coworkers.
And Black women especially have long faced heightened challenges in the workplace — half of all Black women report being an “only” of their gender and race. Our research also shows that Black women are more likely than employees of other races and ethnicities to feel uncomfortable talking with colleagues about their own grief and loss, and they are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work. In addition, Black women are 1.7 times more likely to say they do not have strong allies on their team. Employers must work to foster a culture that invites judgment-free dialogue.
By having senior management talk openly about their commitment to addressing employee mental health and backing up that talk with significant action, organizations can help employees feel more comfortable seeking the support they need. And, just like any priority related to business or talent development, accountability is key. Companies who identify a senior leader to be accountable for employee well-being are more likely to have employees who are satisfied with their benefits. Similarly, much like annual physicals or performance reports, employers could encourage colleagues to conduct a mental health self-assessment once a year — a time for each employee to pause and evaluate their mental well-being with targeted resources to guide the process.
Reevaluate workplace norms.
Covid-19 has made it much harder for employees to draw clear lines between work and home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” This is particularly true for working mothers. In another recent survey, one in two respondents with children at home indicated returning to the workplace will have a negative impact on their mental health.
A sustainable pace of work is essential to helping working parents prevent burnout and transition back to the workplace. Companies should look for ways to reestablish work-life boundaries and communicate which workplace flexibilities will continue to be available.
However, even when workplace flexibilities are available, some employees worry there may be a stigma attached to using them. By having senior management talk openly about their commitment to addressing employee mental health and backing up that talk with significant action, organizations can help employees feel more comfortable seeking the support they need. Better yet, leaders can model boundary-setting and self-care in their own lives, which sends a message to employees that it’s OK to prioritize support and sustainability.
Enhance mental health support.
Senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out, and the CDC reports that one in eight new mothers experience symptoms of postpartum depression. In addition, an overwhelming 67% of employees who self-reported a mental health condition indicate it is challenging to access care.
This moment presents a clear opportunity for employers to step in. Employers don’t need to be mental health providers to provide options to employees. They can partner with experts — many of whom offer digital service delivery — while building up internal capabilities to address well-being at work.
Working with partners, employers can ensure that available mental health services match the company’s standards for physical health offerings, especially in terms of affordability and access to high quality, culturally competent, and gender informed treatment providers.
Employers that enhance virtual and digital supports, reset norms around flexibility, and offer gender-specific programs may see bigger improvements in employee mental health.
Communicate what is available.
Even when mental health resources are available, many employees are not aware of them. About three in four large employers and half of small employers offer at least one mental health resource to complement their health care benefits. But half of employers say that low awareness contributes to low utilization of employee assistance programs (EAP).
Building out the suite of available mental health resources and benefits is the first step; employers must also take steps to ensure employees know how to access available benefits. And only a quarter of employers used their C-level executives’ platforms to get the word out.
Messaging from women leaders, especially those who share their own experiences, is important for women employees who might believe they would be seen as weak or unprofessional for seeking help.
Measure progress and outcomes.
Without actively tracking employee well-being it is nearly impossible to drive accountability. Companies should consider writing target outcomes around utilization of mental health resources (e.g., EAP and digital tools), employee experience and satisfaction with the resources that are offered, and the impact benefits have on the health of their workforce, especially those experiencing higher levels of stress like working mothers.
Measurement tools for employers include analysis of aggregated claims data, employee surveys, focus groups, lived experience panels, and holistic workplace mental health assessment tools to evaluate whether benefits and programs are meeting employee needs.
Above all, act. The lines between work and personal life are vanishing. To have a positive impact on women’s mental wellness at work, employers must be strategic, equitable, and proactive. This commitment will require innovation and transformation of processes, policies, and systems. Mental wellness in the workplace isn’t something that will be achieved overnight, but companies’ collective embrace of workforce mental health as a core business priority is the starting point needed to create a better working culture — and a more inclusive economy — for everyone.
Liz Hilton Segel is the managing partner for McKinsey in North America and the former leader of McKinsey’s Marketing & Sales Practice in the Americas and the New York office. She has served clients across several consumer-facing industries including media, telecommunications, travel, entertainment, retail, financial services, and automotive.
Kana Enomoto is a nationally recognized expert in mental health, substance use, social determinants of health, and trauma. She is the co-lead of the Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare. Prior to joining McKinsey, Kana was the Acting Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General. She was trained as a clinical psychologist and has dedicated her career to reducing the burden of mental illnesses and substance use disorders on communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.