Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Prioritizing the health of female employees is a strategic imperative. Here are 4 ways to do it

Prioritizing women's mental health is increasingly seen as a strategic imperative and competitive advantage.

Prioritizing women's mental health is increasingly seen as a strategic imperative and competitive advantage. Image: Getty Images

Jacqueline Brassey
Co-leader at the McKinsey Health Institute, McKinsey & Company
Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Gender Inequality

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • The number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17% in 2015 to 28% in 2023.
  • New research on employee health shows that women employees report they are more exhausted and have worse mental and spiritual health than men.
  • Employers can play a positive role, including providing support for caregivers, increasing flexibility, cutting microaggressions and providing targeted support.

The workplace is a crucible. Professional demands intersect with personal well-being, including mental health. Working women play many synchronous roles — leader, mentor, friend, partner, relative, caregiver, parent — that they must balance. They also face unique challenges like societal expectations, gender biases and organizational structures, which increase demands on their overall well-being.

Women’s experience at work also has significant potential to impact their health, given more than half of the female health burden affects women during their working years.

Nonetheless, women are making great strides in their work. A 2023 report on women in the workplace highlighted significant progress in the number of women who work, particularly at the highest level — the number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17% in 2015 to 28% in 2023.

However, these hard-earned gains are fragile. Women — especially women of colour — remain underrepresented across the corporate pipeline, and progress is especially slow for women at the manager and director levels.

The good news: employers have the power to positively impact the health of the women in their workforces.

Have you read?

In her shoes: women, mental health and work

So how is the workplace influencing women’s health — and what role can employers play in making it better?

A recent study from the McKinsey Health Institute of over 30,000 employees across 30 countries revealed that women are more exhausted and experience poorer mental and spiritual health than men, putting them at higher risk of burnout.

Globally, 42% of participants reported symptoms of exhaustion. However, women experience exhaustion at a higher rate than men — 46% vs. 38% respectively. The biggest gaps on exhaustion between men and women were found in France, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, with a difference of more than 10%.

Women reported much lower scores on mental health (70% of men and 65% of women reporting good mental health) and spiritual health (61% of men and 56% of women reporting good spiritual health). The relationship between gender and mental health is well documented. Globally, women have close to twice the lifetime rates of depression and most anxiety disorders compared to men.

The World Economic Forum's Healthy Workforces Initiative brings together over 50 leading global organizations to prioritize employee mental health in the workplace. Through collaborative multistakeholder efforts, the initiative shines a spotlight on best practices, key metrics and the compelling business case for companies to invest in robust mental health programmes and policies. This collective action platform allows participating stakeholders to make tangible progress on addressing the psychological well-being and safety of today's workforce at scale.

Women report lower holistic health across the board than men in the workplace.
Women report lower holistic health across the board than men in the workplace. Image: McKinsey Health Institute Employment Survey 2023

Supporting women’s holistic health

Supporting women’s health is complex and multifactorial, but there is clear evidence that taking four key actions can make a significant difference for all employees — irrespective of gender — and thus will positively impact women in the workplace.

1. Increase support for caregivers.

While there are great examples of men increasingly sharing these roles with women, there still is a persistent unequal divide, with women doing more unpaid labour like caregiving than men. Substantially more women report being a caregiver to someone living with a mental or physical illness (of those, 61% of women and 39% of men). Supporting caregivers, for example through specialized coaching, will reduce exhaustion, help retain talented employees and likely improve business performance.

2. Reduce microaggressions.

Women are twice as likely to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state. It’s even worse for women with traditionally marginalized identities — such as black women, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities.

Women who experience microaggressions are much less likely to feel psychologically safe, which makes it harder to take risks, propose new ideas or raise concerns. They are also three times more likely to think about quitting their jobs and four times more likely to almost always be burned out. By leaving microaggressions unchecked, organizations are not letting employees perform to their full potential and risk losing talented employees.

3. Increase flexibility at work.

A vast majority of employees say that opportunities to work remotely and have control over their schedules are top company benefits, second only to healthcare. Whilst workplace flexibility is desired by both men and women, it does have a disproportional impact on women. The report found that women who have the flexibility to work from their preferred location have 15% better mental health, 19% better spiritual health and 19% less exhaustion.

4. Provide tailored support for women.

As highlighted in our recent report, women’s health is more than reproductive health. Employers must invest in women’s health, as it often means being able to work more effectively. Employers could examine ways to better involve women in decision-making processes, provide health and wellness benefits that support women's health and create safe working environments where women can speak openly about their health needs. For example, some employers have implemented period leaves to accommodate women who may require rest during the initial 1-2 days of menstruation. Additionally, extended maternity and childcare leaves foster confidence among women, signalling employer support for their personal journeys.

It is also crucial not to overlook menopause. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in the UK issued new guidance that means in the future employers could face legal action for disability discrimination if they neglect to make "reasonable adjustments" for women experiencing menopausal symptoms.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

Addressing the health needs of women in the workplace is not just a matter of compassion; it's a strategic imperative for fostering inclusive, productive environments. By implementing supportive policies, fostering open dialogue and challenging entrenched biases, organizations can empower women to thrive professionally while nurturing their mental health and overall well-being.

This Agenda article was written with contributions from Barbara Jeffery, Partner at McKinsey & Company and Roxy Merkand, Research Science Specialist at McKinsey Health Institute.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionWellbeing and Mental Health
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