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.
The Role Of Digital Tools
From our conversations with members of the McKinsey HealthTech Network—a global community of more than 850 digital health companies—and other companies active in mental health and well-being, we have identified six main types of digital offerings that could be helpful for companies implementing an employee well-being strategy (Exhibit 2). These offerings fall into three groups:
- Wearables and digital biomarker apps can be used to collect physiological data via a range of different methods. For instance, an employee can use their smartphone to self-report their mood or record their voice as a means to gauge their emotional state, or use their smart watch to track their heart rate, skin temperature, and electrodermal activity to assess their well-being. Innovative forms of data collection like these can be integrated into broader offerings; for instance, if an employee reports persistent low mood, a digital solution may suggest they take a few days off or point them to personalised coaching or therapy. Such interventions can be made without the disclosure of an individual’s personal details; the employer sees only anonymised aggregate data. As these data are more accurate than those gathered by conventional surveys, employers can use them to identify and address pain points in the workplace, and to provide employees with objective measures of their well-being at an individual, team, or organisation-wide level. George Eleftheriou, CEO of Sentio Solutions, which develops biomarkers and digital therapeutics for mental health using data from wearables and mobile devices, noted that, “We expect that by 2025, measures of mental health can be taken as easily as glucose levels today. Physiological data from wearables, as well as speech, text, and interactions with one’s smartphone, will pave the way.”
- Prevention and treatment solutions are likely to form the core of employee resilience and mental-health programs. They offer various degrees of human touch, from prevention chatbots to in-person psychotherapy, and use a range of techniques from meditation and hypnosis to cognitive-behavioral therapy. Some focus exclusively on mental health; others also cover sleep, nutrition, and other aspects of physical health to create a more comprehensive picture of employee well-being. Employers can use them to provide employees with a range of personalised offerings from resilience training to clinical help, in conjunction with support from external professionals or trained employees as appropriate. Large employers could work with a solutions provider to tailor content to their needs; smaller employers could allocate well-being budgets for individual employees to spend on their preferred form of support. Employers could also use third-party solutions providers to help them train employees as first responders, conduct surveys on the well-being of their workforce, and aggregate data on the effectiveness of support offerings. As Patrick Burke, head of healthcare at Happify Health emphasized, “Life is episodically challenging. Instead of putting people in silos, solutions need to offer variable support tailored to the person’s current psychological situation.”
- Analytic tools are often deployed in conjunction with remote data collection using the output from wearables and digital biomarkers. They can alert individual employees when they should consider taking time to recharge, for instance, or notify leaders when teams seem to be experiencing high levels of stress. On a broader scale, employers could work with solutions providers to measure well-being across their workforce and use sophisticated prediction algorithms to link these findings to productivity. At an individual level, employers could use analytics solutions to help identify employees at risk and, with their agreement, refer them to internal or external support services.
When introducing digital mental-health solutions, it is important for employers to emphasise that participation is purely voluntary and that an individual’s data will be treated confidentially and in accordance with data-protection regulations. Employers also should explain that data are used exclusively to increase employee well-being and describe how individuals are expected to participate in data gathering. In addition, it may be important to monitor the use of new digital tools to ensure they don’t limit or hinder real-life interactions.
Employers should weigh heavily whether the healthtech company they plan to work with can tailor its offerings to suit their organisation’s context and culture. They should also consider onboarding best practices, such as making implementation fully digital and anonymous, and reinforcing it with campaigns and personalised support. To be effective, digital solutions can play an important role in the broader organisation-wide shift toward valuing employee well-being; as one executive commented, “Mindfulness won’t help if the motivation system is broken.”
Senior management should also consider the important influence they can have as role models—for example, by opening up about their own struggles—to help employees overcome stigma and address well-being. Lindsay Crittendon, senior strategy director of Headspace for Work, a mindfulness-based employee mental-health solution, noted that, “If a company wants true behavior change, it starts at the top. Executive and stakeholder partnership from the beginning is absolutely critical for any mental well-being and mental-health employee program to be successful.” To ensure that digital solutions are trusted and perceived as safe to use, employers will need to explain why they are being introduced, how they work, and how they fit into the organisation’s broader efforts to promote well-being at work.
Another significant challenge in introducing digital solutions is understanding the quality and reliability of individual offerings, and how different tools compare on key criteria. In the interests of market harmonisation and transparency, the European Commission has commissioned the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) to make a standard for quality and reliability in health and wellness apps. The initiative went global in its cooperation with ISO and is expected to be published before the end of 2021.8 Independent app-assessment organisations will help evaluate health apps with the quality requirements conformity assessment that was drafted with an international Delphi consensus study coordinated by the National eHealth Living Lab (Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands).
Taking The First Steps
Companies that find themselves in horizon 1 or 2 when it comes to nurturing their employees’ mental well-being can take a few key steps to move toward horizon 3 (see sidebar, “Supporting employees’ mental well-being: A framework for evolution”). A good start is to define your ambition for your employees’ mental health in the context of your broader organisational strategy and goals. Then consider what foundations you need to put in place to realise your ambition. What partners and tools do you need? How can you align your ambition with your company’s purpose and values?
Ensure that your business leaders are engaged and aligned, and define how you will measure progress and hold yourself accountable. The journey between one horizon and the next takes time, but you can harness grassroots energy to accelerate it through simple bottom-up initiatives such as getting employees to talk to one another about their mental state or well-being. And you don’t have to work alone: one group of organizations recently united on a leadership pledge to create a community to advance mental health in the workplace.9
Some organisations have been tackling mental health systematically for some time. At Lloyds Banking Group, a well-being campaign is having long-lasting impact, as Edward Thurman, director of group payments partnerships, explains: “Six years ago we started encouraging colleagues to talk about mental-health issues. Once the opportunity was there, people readily opened up and shared stories. Today the bank has over 2,100 employees trained to have supportive conversations, and signpost their colleagues to professional support when they need help.”
“Training is also a priority at SAP, as the company’s chief mindfulness officer Peter Bostelmann observed: “A lot of our work is demystifying mindfulness and well-being. We primarily take a training approach to mental health. Educating as many employees as possible is key to tackling this topic broadly.”
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.