Nap rooms, meditation apps, and healthy snacks are some of the perks companies are increasingly offering to foster employee wellbeing. But these measures alone only treat symptoms—they won’t move the needle on employee burnout and mental health.
“If core factors in the workplace are not right, you can’t yoga your way to creating employee health,” says Martin Dewhurst, a senior partner and co-leader of the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI), a non-profit-generating entity within the firm whose mission is to improve quality of life, including employee mental health and wellbeing.
“Wellbeing, more broadly, is about how we feel our lives are going—and both physical and mental health are important drivers of this,” says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, co-founder of the World Wellbeing Movement and director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford. “We know that the science of wellbeing can shape business and policy. That’s where wellbeing belongs—at the heart of decision-making.”
The movement has been in the works since before the pandemic, but the challenges presented by COVID-19 accelerated the momentum, leading to a July launch event. “To see this finally taking off with so many partnerships—corporations representing half a million people, government leaders—it gave the feeling that the tide could turn,” Martin says.
A recent MHI global survey on how people define their health found that respondents viewed health through four dimensions—physical, mental, social, and spiritual—a wider definition than many systems and companies use. Employers neglect these at their own peril because they can contribute to rising rates of employee burnout.
To help employers better understand burnout causes and identify remedies MHI surveyed 15,000 employees and 1,000 HR decision makers in 15 countries. It found that toxic workplace culture is by far the biggest driver of burnout.
Individual efforts at health only go so far if employees must accept bullying from colleagues or customers, lack work-life balance, or have their work undermined. Employees in toxic cultures are eight times more likely to report symptoms of burnout; those experiencing burnout were six times more likely to say there were soon planning to leave their jobs.
“Throughout my career of over 25 years, and from actively listening to employees across many sectors, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of corporate culture,” explains Sarah Cunningham, managing director of the World Wellbeing Movement. “Creating workplace cultures with employee wellbeing firmly at the core must be a top priority for every employer.”
Even with the best of intentions, it can be a challenge for employers to know how to operationalize, track and quantify wellbeing. “Every company is dealing with this, but by themselves,” says Jan-Emmanuel. “They don’t have the time or the resources to dig into all the academic evidence on which interventions work.” In addition, CHROs or other staff looking to champion wellbeing struggle to make a case for investment. “Typically, a CFO will say, ‘I want to know what the return on investment is,’ and unfortunately, it’s been a mystery black box,” adds Sarah.
In response, much of the movement’s work centers on standardizing measurements and metrics, such as questions to ask employees in pulse surveys that establish a common baseline. It also makes research accessible on initiatives such as shorter work weeks, peer-recognition programs, providing space for gratitude and an array of managerial approaches.
The movement’s vision is to better connect high-end academic research with the live demands of organizations and policymakers and translate these into real-world impact. “We have the tools to make a wide-scale difference on wellbeing, we just need to grow the movement to make it happen,” says Jan-Emmanuel.
We have the tools to make a wide-scale difference on wellbeing, we just need to grow the movement to make it happen.
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, founder of the World Wellbeing Movement and director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at University of Oxford
MHI advances this mission by fostering a strong network of employers dedicated to the aspiration of improving health—providing data, insights, and tools for employers to drive change at scale.
And on a daily basis, McKinsey itself strives to live the values of the World Wellbeing Movement by investing in employees’ mental health and wellbeing. This reflects McKinsey’s Way We Work function, which fosters individual and team wellbeing through people and tools that support colleagues. McKinsey also offers Mind Matters, a firmwide program offering early intervention, resources, and awareness of mental health and substance-use disorders.
“We’ve learned that mental health and wellbeing must be at the very heart of how we have impact as an organization. It cannot be an add on,” says Michael Edwards, McKinsey’s global leader of Way We Work and director of people and operations in the UK, Ireland and Israel. “We’ve fostered a team environment of support. We’re all in this together.”