By Jacqueline Brassey, Anna Güntner, Karina Isaak, and Tobias Silberzahn
Poor mental health takes a heavy toll on individuals and businesses. New digital solutions can help employers provide personalised support and make well-being a strategic focus for their organisation.
More than half of the populations of middle- and high-income countries are likely to suffer from at least one mental condition during their lifetime.1 Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 42 percent of employees globally have reported a decline in mental health.2 Symptoms of burnout are increasing among employees and leaders alike, according to press reports.3
A mental-health condition manifests itself in workplace absenteeism, presenteeism, and loss of productivity. The World Health Organization estimates that depression, anxiety disorders, and other conditions cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.4 But mental health is a continuum from wellness to acute illness, including substance-use disorders (Exhibit 1), and even people without a recognised condition may struggle because of stress, external circumstances, or other reasons.
The good news is that addressing mental health and well-being in the workplace can make a difference. Studies have found, for instance, that wellness programs can improve employees’ performance, mental health, and self-efficacy, and deliver other self-reported health benefits.5 In recent years, the ubiquity of personal digital devices—smartphones, fitness trackers, tablets, and so on—has enabled many programs to shift to digital or virtual formats, which now account for the majority of employer-sponsored health offerings.
As more digital solutions are launched and demands from employees increase, more organisations are investing in building a healthy and resilient workforce. To gain a better understanding on the role of digital technology in supporting employees’ mental health and resilience, we recently interviewed several experts in this area for their insights.
Digital solutions can offer therapeutic approaches or support positive behavioral change on a large scale. They are accessible at any time and from anywhere, providing help on demand without the long waits often needed for in-person therapy. They are also convenient, easy to use, and anonymous.
These attributes also help to overcome much of the stigma that continues to be associated with mental-health issues. Geoff McDonald, a global advocate, campaigner, and consultant for mental health, observed that “We are still at base camp in breaking stigma. Even though progress has been made, a lot needs to be done.” Manuel Ronnefeldt, founder and CEO of 7Mind, a meditation app, noted that “People still seem not to want to admit that they might be stressed or dealing with mental-health issues.” However, he said, this reluctance can be addressed with a thoughtful approach: “Employees are more likely to use solutions when they are positively framed—for example, as a way to boost well-being and performance.” Eva Haussmann, head of personal resilience at Swiss Re, also spoke of the importance of removing any stigma: “Our vision is to put mental health on a par with physical health. It needs to become a topic of conversation and be given the same care and concern. With this, we trust that people will seek help earlier and less people drop out. And for those that do get sick, we want to give them the time and space to heal and come back without fear of repercussions.”
Another advantage of digital mental-health solutions is that they allow the individual employee to decide how they engage with a therapeutic approach. In our interview with Hanne Horvath, founder and vice president of business development at HelloBetter, a digital mental-health provider, she commented, “From our experience, a lot of patients struggle to seek help for a long time because they try to solve their problems on their own. The magic of digital solutions is to give patients that opportunity, empower them and reach them early.” An individual can also take steps to improve their own mental well-being before an issue becomes acute. In addition, Annastiina Hintsa of Hintsa Performance, an organisation for high-performance coaching, noted: “Digital tools make mental-health support more accessible and have the benefit of a low threshold to start dealing with mental-health challenges.”
Recent research has demonstrated that e-health interventions can be effective in improving employees’ mental health and effectiveness.6 For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy over video and apps with programs for treating depression and anxiety have both been reported to reduce symptoms.7 Other common digital formats include chatbots and gamified exercises.
Jacqueline Brassey is a global director of learning in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office and affiliate leader of McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare; Anna Güntner and Karina Isaak are consultants in the Berlin office, where Tobias Silberzahn is a partner.
We thank the leading experts in mental health and health technology from around the world who generously donated their time and insights to help shape this article.