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Navigating Mental Health in a Multigenerational Workplace

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

by Morra Aarons-Mele (Harvard Business Review)

With five generations of workers coming together to collaborate in today’s workforce — all of whom were raised in different times and with different expectations — it’s no wonder that mental health is a sticky subject in the workplace.

But there’s no denying that the future of work is about mental health. Mental health challenges, such as stress, anxiety, and depression, are the number one reason why people miss work. And workplace culture is pivotal to employee mental health: 60% of employees say that their job is the most significant factor in their mental health. Employees also say that managers impact their mental health even more than their doctors or therapists (and on par with their spouses). Workers increasingly expect their employer to play a role in improving mental health.

The numbers also suggest generational discontent. Recent data from the American Psychological Association found that only 45% of Gen Zers reported that their mental health is very good or excellent, and a SHRM survey found that 27% of Generation Z reported feeling depressed by their job at least once per week in the last six months, compared to 18% of Millennials, 14% of Gen Xers and 7% of Baby Boomers and Traditionalists.

That said, are these statistics fully reflective of what’s actually happening with mental health in the workplace, given differing generational comfort levels surrounding the expression of feelings and needs? The stats probably don’t tell the full story.

Many older workers — including me, a GenX-er — were raised to suffer in silence at work. We often feel threatened when people with less seniority freely ask for what they want and share what they think. And as Gen Z enters the workforce, there can be confusion and resistance in older leadership on how to manage a generation that is more depressed and anxious, and also more comfortable talking about it.

But leadership needs to listen. Christina McCarthy, executive director of the nonprofit One Mind at Work, works with executives from some of the world’s largest companies. In a recent interview, she told me that there’s a real danger in dismissing the mental health conversations that are happening with Gen Z and younger Millennials as “just feelings” rather than something more serious that requires committed attention. “We’re not going to see meaningful progress in this space if people don’t feel comfortable expressing their needs,” she said.

Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s U.S. Human Sustainability Leader, told me that the conversation can be clouded by misconceptions on all sides: “Younger people don’t believe that the more senior people understand, and the more senior people don’t believe that the younger people understand. Instead of coming together to have a real discussion on real issues, we’re letting our own perceptions and beliefs get in the way.”

So what can organizations do to support better mental health and more productive conversations across generations going forward? Here are three approaches that can help:

Increase Mental Health Literacy and Define Terms

The most fundamental thing organizations must do is help their people create a common vocabulary around workplace mental health. How we identify and share our emotions is dependent on our own backgrounds, upbringing, and comfort and education in talking about mental health. A survey done by the nonprofit Made of Millions found that 80% of managers lack confidence in addressing sensitive issues around mental health and equity because they are afraid of using the wrong words. One in five respondents said that “unclear language” and “fear of saying the wrong thing” are top concerns for effectively managing mental health conditions on their team.

At the same time, we all regularly misuse terms. We conflate stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. We joke about being “OCD” or “crazy.” Of Gen Zers, Leah Smart, LinkedIn News Editor – Personal Development, says, “They’re young, they’re open, they’re free” — and they expect to talk about their feelings. “Words like ‘trauma’ or ‘toxic’ or ‘depressed’ or ‘panic attack’ are words Gen Z uses often to refer to their own mental health, but they’re oftentimes using it in a way that’s blown out of proportion,” she says. When coaching young people, she’ll ask, “Did you really have a panic attack? Or were you just anxious and you don’t yet know how to identify that and how to talk about that?” [Disclosure: My own podcast is hosted by LinkedIn, and I am compensated for this work.]

Yale psychology professor Marc Brackett sees in his research that people are not skilled or knowledgeable about how to distinguish emotions. “It’s really hard to teach people how to deal with their feelings if they’re not labeling them properly,” notes Brackett.

If you’re an employee advocating for change in your organization, language matters. Christina McCarthy notes that sometimes people feel these conversations are implicit criticisms of leadership, which can lead to alienating the very people who can create change. She recommends framing mental health into language that resonates with the people in the conversation. “Speak to leaders in the language that they’re familiar with, such as data. Then mental health can be an issue that we address together, designing solutions that really make that impact together.”

It’s ideal to commission your own data about how employee mental health affects your company’s workforce. (You could start by including some questions about mental health in engagement surveys or other annual reviews or reach out to the nonprofit One Mind at Work.) But if that’s not available, there’s a lot of data available to help make the business case for investing in employee mental health — the American Psychological Association and SHRM are good resources. There are also plenty of resources online to help define terms and educate your work force about mental health. You can choose to hire consultants or do simple online training; just do something!

Give Peers Brave Spaces

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving mental health across generations, but data is showing that peer support is valuable for supporting mental health and whole body health alike. Peer-support programs are most effectivewhen they’re centered on individuals’ current challenges and life circumstances. Given generational differences in approaching mental health at work, this might mean pushing beyond a single Mental Health Employee Resource Group (ERG) and creating opportunities for psychological safety among more specific groups of peers. You could bring together people of similar generations, life stage, or level of responsibility at work.

For example, Google’s director of health and performance, Newton Cheng, has seen that when leaders who are in similar stages and life stages get together, they can feel safer to share their own struggles, which in turn opens up more space for helping others. “They’re in a safe cohort where they can express how they’re doing, because they feel like people will get it.”

Brave spaces take different forms, but brave spaces encourage people to speak up and share, even when they feel different or like their opinion might not be what’s “expected.” This is an important consideration for Gen Z, the most diverse generation, and one that approaches institutions differently than older generations. Crystal Widado, a Gen Z advocate for Mental Health America, said that many young people are “retraumatized” when they go to traditional resources like therapy and counseling, and prefer peer networks. Headspace CEO Russ Glass agrees that finding the right modality is crucial. “Mental health support may look different across generations. Older people may prefer speaking on a phone with someone, whereas Millennials and Gen Zers might prefer video support from their home, or even chat-based support. Enterprises have to think about how they are providing different mechanisms of support.”

Center Personal Stories and Experiences

A wise person once told me, “You never know what a person’s going through.” When I was just starting out, I had a boss who was frequently irritable and terse with me for about a year. I became anxious around my boss. I thought it was all my fault, until I learned she was having a difficult time and going through infertility treatments. It wasn’t until I heard her story that I could understand. And even though I was many years away from thinking about having kids, I could connect and empathize with her experience once I knew.

That’s why centering personal stories and experiences is a must. Colleagues who want to share their own mental health challenges can encourage us all to be a little more open with each other, which in turn reduces anxiety at work. We don’t need to tell each other everything, but we can choose when some vulnerability might really help a situation.

McCarthy points to the need for a more strategic approach to workforce involvement and engagement around issues such as gender and representation, diversity, equity, and mental health. “We need to build structures within organizations that facilitate meaningful contribution, at all different facets of the organization, and at all different leadership levels,” she says. This is why storytelling is one of the most powerful ways multi-generations and peer groups can connect around complex topics.

Workplace mental health is intersectional, and cannot be stripped away from other systemic inequities and failures. Esther Fernandez, a GenZer who works at the Made of Millions Foundation, notes that, too often, discussions around mental health at work focus on diagnosable conditions and benefits, and not enough around external situations and other issues that also affect our mental health. “If there’s police brutality happening in the news and you’re a person of color, or if it’s happening in your city and all you’re seeing is mass death, you carry that with you into work,” she notes.

The reality is, when we get vulnerable, we create the space and permission for others to get vulnerable, too. At a recent company gathering, Fisher was approached in the hallway by a more senior partner in the organization, who recognized her because he had seen her recent TEDx talk. He was quite emotional as he approached. Fisher’s experience was that the partner always looked buttoned up, like he had it all under control. But he shared that her TEDx talk about burnout had caused him to identify for the first time that he was suffering too, and that he needed to seek help.

It’s not easy navigating the different lived experiences, needs, and emotional fluency of five generations in one workplace, but one thing is clear: Future leaders — and workers — are demanding a level of vulnerability that’s new, uncomfortable, and 100% necessary.

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