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Meeting Mental Health Needs Across Generations

Multi-generation group of business people discussing ideas at a conference table in a modern office.

Five distinct generations share today’s workplace, each with different expectations and preferences for mental health support. Older employees from the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X typically had fewer demands for mental health support when they entered the workforce. Millennials may be more vocal, while Generation Z lacks experience in asking for mental health-related help.

Research from the think tank Resolution Foundation in the U.K. found younger workers there are more likely to call in sick, often due to mental health lapses that they may not communicate to their employers. More than a third of people ages 18-24 have a “common mental disorder” such as depression or anxiety. Young people are now more likely to be absent from work because of illness than people who are 20 years older, according to the research.

Perhaps due to that higher level of absenteeism, more than a third of young workers are labeling themselves unproductive, though researchers say the true cause of this low productivity may be a breakdown in communications between young workers and their older managers.

“No matter the workplace generation, we all want to be heard and supported,” said Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023) and a workplace mental health expert. “We all have to find common ground and ways to communicate with each other around our workplace mental health challenges.”

Why Generational Differences Matter

“A one-size-fits-all approach to supporting mental health cannot accommodate all generations, because everyone is different,” said Sue Haywood, president of HR consultancy HR BluePrints. “Some generations are just starting out in their careers and might be stressed about buying a house. Others might be dealing with new families or considering retirement and dealing with chronic health problems. Some are sandwiched between caring for children and aging parents.” 

[SHRM resources: Mental Health]

While many workers are under stress, the particular stressors and supports required to alleviate them can be different depending on a person’s age and work experience. “As Gen Z accelerates into the workplace, they don’t typically have the experience to respond appropriately when negative things happen at work,” said Mark DeFee, a workplace wellness consultant. “If your company loses a major account, younger employees may believe the sky is falling. Older employees have seen it all before and can say, ‘This is just part of the normal business cycle.’ ”

[SHRM Foundation resources: A Field Guide for Mental Health in Your Workplace: From Evaluation to Action]

Being aware of the need to support employees’ mental health isn’t enough, because that awareness may not translate into action. A 2023 Mind Share Partners study found that “while Gen Z is more aware of mental health issues, they don’t always raise concerns with their managers, as Millennials more often do,” said Bernie Wong, knowledge lead and principal at the workplace mental health consultancy. 

“Millennials have spent more time in the workforce, so may be more comfortable navigating those potentially risky conversations,” Wong added, “while Gen Z, despite their awareness, has trouble navigating whether they should talk about mental health at work, especially across generations.”

10 Tips to Support Mental Health in Multigenerational Workplaces

We asked workplace mental health experts for tips on supporting the needs of different generations. Some tips are better suited to particular generations, while others may work for everyone.

1. Prioritize investments in work culture over individual therapy and self-care. Conventional approaches to supporting workplace mental health focus on individual benefits and resources. “But every group of employees we surveyed preferred a healthy, sustainable culture of work as the most helpful support for mental health,” Wong said, “while treatment and self-care resources were preferred last in our survey. There’s clearly a mismatch between what employees want versus what employers are offering.” 

Those cultural investments, Wong added, “could focus on having conversations around autonomy, flexibility, self-determination, and protecting people against unsustainable workloads and toxic work cultures.”

2. Make sure preferences from different generations are heard. Having your 59-year-old CFO decide what mental health benefits meet the needs of all your employees isn’t an inclusive process. 

“When selecting mental health benefits, organizations should be listening to all employee generations, whether that listening happens via surveys, focus groups, advisory committees, or whatever,” DeFee said. “Maybe even bring these generational voices into your [request for proposal] process for benefits.”

3. Managers and leaders should model authentic vulnerability. That could mean admitting that, “Yeah, this week was really tough for me,” or listening with empathy to what people are saying.

 “The traditional ‘command-and-control’ leadership doesn’t work for younger generations,” said Scott De Long, founder of leadership development advisory firm Lead2Goals. “Leaders must model humility, empathy and vulnerability. Humility in recognizing that we can learn important things from everyone, including the Gen Z employee who just started. Empathy helps us understand what others might be going through. Vulnerability is the most attractive trait a leader can have. It can be as simple as offering an idea and then humbly asking, ‘What do you think?’ ”

4. Don’t reinforce a combative narrative about generations. Too often, when people talk about generations and workplace mental health, they take on an “us-versus-them” tone. “We need to create a collective sense of belonging that respects everyone’s strengths,” Wong said.

Midcareer employees, for example, may be more open to telling their personal stories about mental health and can serve as coaches for older generations who may have hesitations. More experienced employees, on the other hand, can provide mentorship to younger employees on how to navigate challenging workplace dynamics. 

5. Give your managers the skills to have multigenerational conversations. “Managers are almost never trained to facilitate and navigate difficult conversations across generations,” Aarons-Mele said. “Resourcing managers with the skills and time to have these conversations is really, really important.”

6. Facilitate peer-to-peer support. Peer support groups are very effective when they’re supported and taken seriously, Aarons-Mele said. “Mentoring also helps, as does creating a workplace culture where people feel they can approach each other to discuss their mental health concerns.”

Those discussions can help create a more supportive work culture.

“When feelings are acknowledged and validated, it signals to people that they're in a safe and supportive environment for mental health conversations,” Wong said. 

7. Consider different support channels. Comfort with technology is another big difference across generations. “Younger generations may be perfectly comfortable getting mental health support via text message or apps,” Aarons-Mele said, “while older generations might be less comfortable texting their emotions, fears and mental health concerns to a stranger and would prefer face-to-face interaction.” 

8. Communicate the impact of mental health on engagement and physical health. The research connecting poor mental health to diminished employee engagement and physical health is worthy of discussion. “Poor mental health is linked to heart disease, to gastrointestinal issues, and to shortened lifespans,” Haywood said. “People’s productivity and engagement suffer too, and all of that negatively impacts the organization.”

9. Educate all generations in the workplace about available resources. Let people know how they can access mental health support. “For example, most employers already have employment assistance programs (EAPs) that are confidential and do counseling, help with elder care or child care, offer financial counseling, and provide other types of support,” Haywood explained. “I've seen usage rates of EAPs that are below 5 percent. Why not have your EAP provider come in and do educational sessions with your employees?”

10. Opt for proactive mental health approaches. “Your organization could spend less money now on prevention and education versus spending a lot more money downstream on employee turnover, sick leave and medical benefits,” Haywood said. “Younger employees in particular are now saying ‘Hey, if you're not going to proactively invest in and care about my mental health, I'll go someplace else.’ ”

Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer in Boston.


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