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Embracing Workplace Mental Health Across Different Employee Age Groups

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Feature with  HYER

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Generations mixing it up at work has thrown a real curveball to companies trying to keep everyone's mental health in good shape. You've got five generations, each coming from a different time, each with their own ideas about life and work, all working side by side. It's like a puzzle with lots of pieces. Managers need to be pretty savvy to create a workplace where mental health gets the green light. And the secret sauce? It's all about opening up and showing a bit more of the real you – a big shift that's a bit scary but totally necessary.

The reason for this shift is crystal clear: the future of work is all about mental health. We're talking about stress, anxiety, and depression, the three main suspects behind people calling in sick. More and more folks point the finger at their jobs as the main cause of their mental health ups and downs. Here's the twist – the power of managers to affect an employee's mental health is neck and neck with the doctors and therapists. Today's workplace is where the action is when it comes to mental health.

Interestingly, generational disparities highlight a growing discontent among the workforce. A study by the American Psychological Association revealed that only 45% of Gen Zers considered their mental health very good or excellent, and a survey by SHRM uncovered that a staggering 27% of Generation Z experienced weekly job-related depression in the past six months. This contrasts with 18% of Millennials, 14% of Gen Xers, and a mere 7% of Baby Boomers and Traditionalists.

Nevertheless, these statistics do not capture the full spectrum of the mental health landscape at work, primarily due to the contrasting comfort levels among generations regarding the expression of feelings and needs. Older generations, like the Gen Xers, were often taught to endure in silence, a stark contrast to the younger Gen Z workforce that finds it natural to discuss their mental health struggles openly. Thus, a dialogue emerges between resistance and confusion among older leadership, managing a generation that experiences heightened levels of depression and anxiety but is also more adept at addressing these issues.

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As Christina McCarthy, the executive director of the nonprofit One Mind at Work, astutely points out, there's a real danger in dismissing the mental health conversations happening with Gen Z and younger Millennials as 'just feelings' rather than recognizing them as significant issues requiring dedicated 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, highlights the misperceptions that often cloud the conversation. 'Younger people don't believe that the more senior people understand, and the more senior people don't believe that the younger people understand,' she observes. Instead of engaging in genuine discussions on real issues, personal perceptions and beliefs tend to obstruct the path to progress.

Jen Fisher, the U.S. Human Sustainability Leader at Deloitte, contends that misconceptions cloud the conversation on mental health from both ends. She notes that younger and senior employees often perceive a lack of mutual understanding, hampering genuine discussions on the issues at hand. In lieu of converging to tackle genuine problems, personal beliefs and perceptions obstruct the path to progress.

So, how can organizations bridge this generational gap and foster more productive discussions around mental health? Let's explore three transformative approaches:

1. Enhancing Mental Health Literacy and Establishing Common Ground

The first step toward promoting mental health across generations involves cultivating a shared vocabulary within the organization. Different backgrounds, upbringing, and comfort levels with discussing mental health contribute to a lack of clarity and confidence among employees. A survey conducted by the nonprofit Made of Millions revealed that 80% of managers hesitate to address sensitive mental health issues due to the fear of using inappropriate language. The use of vague or inappropriate terminology ranks high on the list of concerns for effectively managing mental health conditions.

Misuse of terms is rampant, with stress, anxiety, and overwhelm often confused. Moreover, words like 'trauma,' 'toxic,' 'depressed,' and 'panic attack' are frequently employed, sometimes exaggerating the actual condition. Addressing this issue, especially when dealing with younger generations, is essential. Clarifying the language surrounding mental health creates a more effective dialogue. 

Yale psychology professor Marc Brackett's research underscores the importance of accurately labeling emotions. Inaccurate labeling inhibits one's ability to deal with their feelings effectively. When advocating for change within an organization, it's vital to use language that resonates with the audience. This might mean framing mental health in terms of data or other concepts familiar to the organization's leaders.

Ideally, organizations should conduct surveys that assess how employee mental health affects their workforce, integrating questions related to mental health into engagement surveys and reviews. Utilizing data from resources like the American Psychological Association and SHRM can also help build a strong case for investing in employee mental health. Education resources are readily available online to help define terms and educate the workforce on mental health. Employers can opt to hire consultants or provide online training to facilitate these crucial conversations.

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2. Embracing Peer Support Networks

While there's no universal solution for enhancing mental health across generations, data highlights the value of peer support in promoting mental well-being. Peer support programs are most effective when tailored to individual challenges and life circumstances. Given the diversity in generational attitudes toward mental health in the workplace, this might require going beyond a single Mental Health Employee Resource Group (ERG) and fostering psychological safety in more specific peer groups. These groups could be based on generational similarities, life stages, or job responsibilities.

Google's director of health and performance, Newton Cheng, emphasizes that leaders in similar life stages and career phases often find it easier to share their struggles. The establishment of 'safe cohorts' where individuals can express themselves without fear of judgment encourages open dialogue. This approach is particularly vital for Gen Z, a generation that values peer networks over traditional therapy and counseling. Headspace CEO Russ Glass recognizes that mental health support can take various forms across generations. While older generations may prefer phone conversations, Millennials and Gen Z often gravitate towards video and chat-based support. Providing diverse support mechanisms is essential for engaging different age groups effectively.

3. Emphasizing Personal Narratives and Experiences

Incorporating personal stories and experiences is a pivotal strategy for fostering understanding and empathy across generations. Sharing personal challenges with mental health can create a more open and less anxious work environment. It's not about divulging every detail of one's life but choosing the right moments to be vulnerable.

Christina McCarthy highlights the need for a strategic approach to workforce involvement and engagement in various issues, including gender representation, diversity, equity, and mental health. Building structures within organizations that facilitate meaningful contributions at all levels of the organization is key. Storytelling emerges as a powerful tool for connecting multi-generational and peer groups around complex topics.

The intersection of workplace mental health with other systemic inequities and failures must not be ignored. External situations, such as incidents of police brutality, can significantly impact an employee's mental health, especially if they belong to marginalized groups. Understanding these nuances and engaging in open conversations is pivotal in addressing workplace mental health comprehensively.

Vulnerability paves the way for others to follow suit. A recent incident involving Deloitte's Jen Fisher highlights this point. After delivering a TEDx talk on burnout, a senior partner approached her, visibly emotional. This partner, who always appeared composed and in control, revealed for the first time that he too was struggling and needed help. This serves as a potent reminder that navigating the emotional landscapes of five generations in the workplace is challenging, yet essential.

The multifaceted nature of today's workforce, encompassing five generations with distinct attitudes toward mental health, necessitates a shift in the way organizations approach this critical issue. To meet the evolving demands of future leaders and workers, embracing vulnerability, establishing a common language, fostering peer support, and sharing personal experiences are essential steps toward transforming the workplace into a thriving ecosystem of mental well-being. By taking these measures, organizations can bridge generational gaps and create a culture where open and supportive discussions around mental health are the norm, empowering employees of all ages to thrive both personally and professionally.

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