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Employee Mental Health: May 2024 EN:Insights Forum

Man in a suit smiles as he works.

The May 2024 EN:Insights Forum examined SHRM’s new research on mental health in the workplace, which explores the impact of work on employee mental health and what emotions workers’ jobs often make them feel. However, workplace mental health goes beyond the experiences of individual employees, as employee mental health can also affect critical business outcomes in several ways.

“Workers who are burned out from their work are nearly three times more likely to be actively searching for another job,” said SHRM Senior Researcher Daroon Jalil. “But when we look at the positive side of things, workers who feel fulfilled from their work are significantly more likely to go above and beyond what is expected of them.”

Here are five critical insights from the research.

Research Insight 1: Work’s impact on mental health shapes employee engagement and retention.

SHRM’s survey of U.S. workers found:

  • 44% are burned out from their work.
  • Workers who are burned out from their work are nearly three times more likely to be actively searching for another job.
  •  45% of burned-out workers are actively looking for a new job.
  • 16% of workers who aren’t burned out are actively looking for a new job.

Research Insight 2: HR professionals often find meaning in their work, but their unique role in the workplace can adversely affect their mental health as well.

SHRM’s survey of HR professionals found:

  • 95% take pride in working in HR.
  • 77% say being an HR professional is a part of their identity.
  • 74% have formed lasting relationships through work.


  • 75% say working in HR is emotionally exhausting.
  • 47% say working in HR has hurt their mental health and well-being.
  • 52% wouldn’t recommend an HR job to someone struggling with their mental health.

Research Insight 3: Workers feel pressured to prioritize work over their mental health. During the last five years, at least 20% of employees have curtailed their careers to protect their mental health.

SHRM’s research found that:

  • 49% of managers feel pressured to prioritize the organization’s well-being over the well-being of those they manage.
  • 46% of managers feel pressured to prioritize the well-being of the people they manage over their own personal well-being.
  • 34% of workers have moved to a lower-paying job to protect their mental health.
  • 26% of workers decided to pursue a different career to protect their mental health.
  • 22% of workers have quit a job without having another job lined up to protect their mental health.

Research Insight 4: Many workers feel their employer’s leadership and organizational culture around mental health are contradictory, leaving them feeling uncomfortable discussing mental health at work.

SHRM’s research found:

  • 73% of workers report that their organization says it cares about employee mental health.


  • 46% of those workers say their organization’s actions say otherwise.
  • 39% of those workers think their organization only pretends to care because it’s trendy.

According to workers, when someone discusses their mental health at work:

  • 69% said they are shown kindness.
  • 65% said they are supported.
  • 55% said they become easier to connect, engage, and work with.
  • 41% said they are gossiped about.
  • 35% said they are less likely to get promoted.
  • 28% said they are trusted with fewer responsibilities at work.

Research Insight 5: Most workers don’t fully understand all the mental health benefits available to them, but greater awareness of benefits can improve talent retention.

SHRM’s research found:

  • 67% of U.S. workers are unaware or only somewhat aware of the mental health resources their organization offers.
  • 50% of U.S. workers do not feel comfortable using or asking for the mental health resources their organization offers.
  • 46% of workers who aren’t aware of their benefits would leave their job for another that would offer better mental health benefits.
  • 36% of workers who are aware of their benefits would leave their job for another that would offer better mental health benefits.                                                          

Katy George: Let’s structure work in a way that generates positive, healthy stress for employees

Katy George is the chief people officer for McKinsey & Company, where she oversees all global people functions, including professional development and learning, recruiting, human resources, performance evaluation, people analytics, and other core capabilities. She’s been with McKinsey for more than 20 years and has advised industries including pharmaceutical, medical-device, aerospace, and energy. She’s also a member of the board of MxD, a 250-member consortium of leading government academic and corporate organizations; the CNBC Workforce Executive Council; and McKinsey’s global leadership team.

When it comes to mental health in the workplace, “McKinsey’s been a big proponent of what we call organizational health,” George said. “We have indices about it. We can help you understand how your performance and health is doing from an organizational perspective, but now we are seeing the link between individual health and performance and retention as well. We use the World Health Organization’s definition of health, which is physical, mental, spiritual, and social. In the last five years, we’ve really stood up and made much more prominent our mental health resources for our employees.”

Here are some highlights from George’s Q&A during the May 2024 EN:Insights Forum.

How do we destigmatize mental health and really see it as something that can be talked about openly?

There are lots of positive outcomes when employees talk about mental health issues in the workplace. We want that to be the norm. A lot of this then weighs very heavily on our front-line HR professionals. What we’ve done is to make sure that in every one of our locations we have somebody who’s certified and trained and really knows how to deal with these issues and how to refer people to the right support. This gives the rest of our HR organization someone they can go to when they are trying to help a colleague with an issue.

Another thing we found in our own McKinsey Health Institute research on burnout is that a lot of the opportunity to influence individual mental health comes from not just the resources you provide and the education you provide, but frankly from the work itself. How do you structure work in a way that generates positive, healthy stress? A lot of the great innovation and great work we get done is during cycles of high stress, but then people need to recover afterwards. That notion of the stress recovery cycle is something we’re trying to really help our colleagues understand.

How do smart organizations balance the need for high productivity with the need for long-term employee mental health? 

That kind of balance is a false trade-off. The best way to get high productivity is to invest in your employees’ health. It improves your retention, and it improves their productivity. It makes them much more resilient to challenges when it comes to handling ups and downs in the workplace.

We’ve studied companies that have very high financial results and those that have less successful financial results. We also can look at which companies did well during COVID, and which ones were the most resilient. The companies that are the highest performers in financial outcomes and were the most resilient during COVID were the organizations that had both strengths—high productivity and commitment to employee mental health.

If you only have the profit and loss (P&L) strength, you’re not resilient and you don’t reach your full potential as a company. And if you only invest in the people side, you don’t get top performance. We see that with our McKinsey teams. We monitor how many work hours people put in and how happy people are. The teams with the best client feedback, the ones that are most successful from a business perspective, are also the ones where our people are the happiest and report the best work/life balance.

Is there a correlation between leadership skills and the impact or value relative to employee mental health?

We know that certain leadership styles are empowering and supportive, such as strengths-based feedback, and allow people to be both high performers but also in a sustainable way. We talk about McKinsey as a “caring meritocracy,” and we put those words together on purpose. We want our culture to be really caring of individuals, but also to set a high standard and to recognize that high performance is expected.

One of the things, though, that struck me about the research presented today is the pressure that it puts on managers. Some of my colleagues recently published a book called Power to the Middle (Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field; Harvard Business Review Press, 2023), which I found super interesting because in today’s world, where we have the opportunity to be virtual versus in person, where people are trying to deal with civility in the workplace, where there are new technologies coming in, and also where the employer is expected to support individual health and mental health, the pressure and also the opportunity on front-line managers is much greater.

What do you think the impact of AI will be in the years to come on mental health in the workplace?

Generative AI will obviously be disruptive in different ways, and we all need to manage that in terms of upskilling and redirecting the time that AI saves people into higher-value activities. One thing that I find helpful is that when we talk about what the role of the manager will have in a fully AI-enabled workplace is that what will be most important for each of us as humans working with machines will be empathy, emotional maturity, and interpersonal skills. Those things will be more important, not less.

Today’s managers who are successful because they are performance managers, who focus on checking the numbers, that stuff will be automated. What we need managers to do is engage with human beings and motivate and inspire and help them collaborate in successful ways, in a way that also collaborates with AI. I think we’ll see an era of even more emphasis and value being placed on these positive human qualities that should enable us to be more human in our interactions with each other.

Additional Takeaways

  • When SHRM’s mental health survey researchers looked at results in the business categories of service, knowledge, and manufacturing, it was workers in service industries who struggled the most with mental health.
  • In terms of work arrangements (in-person, remote, and hybrid), one noticeable trend was that hybrid employees were significantly more likely to say they felt fulfilled with their job and were more likely to feel enthusiastic about their job.

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