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Gen Z Expects Mental Wellness Support from Employers

Check out these eight strategies employers can use

A woman talking to a woman in a waiting room.

​Carson Finkle remembers the panic attack he had in his sleep five years ago when he was mentally spent, wrung out and depleted from winding down one startup business as he started up another.

"I'd never experienced anything like that before," the entrepreneur said of the vivid nightmare that shocked him awake. "I was crying uncontrollably. I thought I'd lost my mind."

He embarked on a mental wellness pilgrimage that resulted in founding Create Meditation in Yorba Linda, Calif., a company that works with individuals and employers.

Like Finkle, members of Generation Z—the oldest of whom are 25—are prioritizing mental wellness.

Report after report shows they expect tangible employer support and to be comfortable talking about their struggles without feeling stigmatized.

SHRM research found that 61 percent of Generation Z respondents said they would strongly consider leaving their current job if offered a new one with significantly better mental health benefits. 

[SHRM members-only Resource Hub Page: Mental Health] 

Monster's 2023 State of the Graduate Report found that 54 percent of 1,000 new and soon-to-be college graduates would turn down a job offer if an employer did not offer work/life balance. Ninety-two percent of respondents said it's important they feel comfortable discussing mental wellness at work.

Emily Rosado-Solomon, assistant professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., has seen an uptick among college students talking about their mental health—and a change in the tenor of those conversations.

There's a willingness since the COVID-19 pandemic began "to disclose they have anxiety or depression," Rosado-Solomon said. "When I started teaching, I didn't see that."

Students "expect these conversations to be able to continue in the workplace," she added.

The disruption and trauma in the last several years—political and social unrest, layoffs, COVID-19—has led to "the normalization of mental health challenges at work," the Harvard Business Review reported.

But while employers have responded with enhanced counseling benefits, apps, and mental health days or weeks, it's not enough. 

"Employers," HBR said, "must connect what they say to what they actually do."

This is especially important because work is negatively impacting workers' health, SHRM Online reported.

Meeting Mental Health Expectations

So, what can employers do? From personal coaches to mindfulness training and flexible environments, there are a variety of ways employers can create a culture that supports mental health.

1. Design jobs in ways that promote good mental health.

"While unlimited flexibility is not possible in all jobs, managers should look for ways to increase employees' autonomy where it doesn't compromise a business need," Rosado-Solomon said.

"Managers might consider hybrid work options when employees don't have to be in the office, or they might allow employees to take breaks at nonstandard times and make up work later in the day."

Allowing workers to attend a therapy session during the middle of the afternoon is another form of workplace flexibility.

2. Encourage managers to serve as mental wellness role models, when possible.

"This may manifest as managers mentioning that they are taking a mental health day or putting a therapy appointment on a shared calendar that's visible to subordinates," Rosado-Solomon said.

Executive leaders also should model mental wellness behaviors.

"It has to start from the top down," Finkle said. If company leaders don't use the benefits, "people don't feel they have permission to take advantage of that wellness program or activity."

3. Introduce structured, healthy team-based activities.

Finkle likes the idea of team activities, which he said can take the form of a weekly walking meeting or an employee book club.

"Our willpower can diminish very quickly in staying with good habits on our own," he pointed out.

An ADP Research Institute report, People at Work 2023: A Global Workforce View found team-building activities were gaining traction as mental health-boosting initiatives, favored by 27 percent of 32,612 respondents surveyed in Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin American and North America (Canada and the U.S.). Respondents were full- and part-time employees as well as gig workers.

4. Offer allocated vacation days instead of unlimited paid time off (PTO).

Employees often feel guilty about taking unlimited PTO and don't use it, Finkle said.

However, "when it is a sanctioned/allocated vacation that HR reminds everyone to take, it gives everyone in the company permission to take the time off. It removes any guilt or judgment," he added.

5. Conduct mindfulness training during onboarding.

"This can be done in person or through Zoom," Finkle pointed out. "Having all employees learn/develop the skill of breathing will give them some tools to greatly help manage their nervous system."

6. Offer insurance coverage for therapy.

Forty percent of 2,756 graduating college seniors LaSalle Network surveyed in March said insurance coverage for therapy is the No. 1 employer benefit they want.

"They want to make sure they were able to go to therapy and it wasn't a taboo subject at the company," said Sirmara Campbell, CHRO at LaSalle Network.

7. Offer personal coaches.

"Therapy can be great, but I still think there's a stigma in the business realm," especially among older generations, Finkle said. He suggested giving everyone a business or life coach from outside the organization who meets individuals for 30 minutes once a week.

These conversations can help the employee excel in all areas of their life, and that "carries over to impact the business," he said.

8. Provide mental health training to managers.

The idea is not to turn managers into therapists, Rosado-Solomon said, but to educate them on how to show compassion without "overstepping boundaries of the supervisor-subordinate relationship or prying in a way that might make an employee uncomfortable." 

There are training programs, she said, that offer specific suggestions on what managers should and should not say to an employee in crisis, give them a better understanding of mental health challenges, and teach them how to check in with employees.



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