The Generational Challenge No Workplace Should Ignore

Lauren Stiller Rikleen sheds light on the often unjust criticisms faced by new generations in the workplace along with the most pressing challenge they face - the mental health crisis.
The Generational Challenge No Workplace Should Ignore
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Whenever a new generation enters the workplace, it invariably poses challenges that can leave employers asking why their new hires “can’t be like we were”, (and people of a certain demographic all know the rest of the legendary song: “perfect in every way”). For the past two generations especially, the judgments and characterisations have often been unjustifiably harsh.

As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Tackling the great mistmatch: Retaining talent at all ages took place from 1430–1600 CET on 17 May 2023. This event has ended but don't worry, you can still ► watch the replay!

These generations began their careers under a cloud of myths that have made their entry into the workforce difficult. I have spent years writing and training about the mischaracterisation of their perceived behaviours such as, for example, being disloyal, entitled, and overly focused on work-life flexibility. Always, my recommendations for employers include a plea for deeper analysis, nuanced responses, and thoughtful strategies.

Yet with all the media attention that is lavished on demographic characteristics, the most significant generational challenge today remains under-reported and insufficiently addressed: the mental health crisis that is overwhelming the youngest among us in the workplace. The growing data on this topic demonstrates that the threat is not approaching; rather, it is already present, demanding immediate attention and an “all-hands” response.

Other pre-pandemic data revealed that, in 2019, 16% of young people between the ages of 12-17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year, double the rate reported in 2009.

As reported by the American Psychological Association, months before Covid-19 upended their lives and altered their learning and development, Generation Z members were experiencing far greater levels of stress than prior generations. The APA study noted that many social and economic factors were exacerbating their stress, including such events as mass shootings, climate change, the separation and deportation of immigrants and their families, and sexual harassment and assault.

Also on the Forum Network: Multi-generational, diverse, resilient: the key to a thriving workforce of the future by JC Townend, Country President at Adecco UK and IRE, The Adecco Group

Organisations need to be more resilient than ever to respond to high inflation and energy costs, global economic instability, and changing worker and customer expectations. Of the many issues organisations are dealing with today, one of the most prevalent is the labour and skills shortage, explains JC Townend.

Other pre-pandemic data revealed that, in 2019, 16% of young people between the ages of 12-17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year, double the rate reported in 2009. Suicide rates also increased significantly.

Even as it has had a crushing impact on us all, the impact of the pandemic has been particularly severe on Gen Z. For young people, the past several years have been a generation-defining moment that instilled deep fears about their uncertain future and, for too many, resulted in devastating losses of family and loved ones. In an instant, members of this cohort became unmoored from the structure of their daily lives and lost the milestone moments that have long served as a rite of passage at key life stages. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Gen Z felt more stressed by the pandemic than other generations.

Research demonstrates that the mental health crisis facing younger generations has become increasingly urgent. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, whose KIDS COUNT Data Center tracks and reports on the mental health of children, youth, and young adults, reveals a significant rise in mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. In its 360 Global Well-Being Survey of nearly 12,000 employees, Cigna reported that, even as all employee demographics show an increase in stress levels, the rate is highest among Gen Z, including high levels of burnout.

In an extraordinary action, the United States Surgeon General recently issued an Advisory, offering detailed evidence that social media presents a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” As the report notes, Advisories are only issued for “significant public health challenges” that warrant immediate attention and response from the country.

The notion that health cannot be off-loaded to a particular unit, but must be integrated into an organisation’s business goals and culture, is fundamental to success.

This report adds yet another layer of urgency to the importance of addressing the full array of mental health concerns that our youngest workers, including the next generation to enter the workplace, are enduring.

The collective research is a call to action for employers across the globe. Here are four steps that should be undertaken immediately:

  1. Address mental health as a component of an overall strategy for employee well-being that is purposefully integrated into the workplace culture.

Extensive research clearly demonstrates that there is no singular cause for the rising rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. Accordingly, there is no one answer that will solve the growing mental health crisis.

In its study, Cigna describes the need for a “Whole Health and well-being strategy as a central pillar of an overall business strategy.” The notion that health cannot be off-loaded to a particular unit, but must be integrated into an organisation’s business goals and culture, is fundamental to success.

  1. Ensure your employees have access to affordable mental health resources.

National surveys from McKinsey identified numerous barriers that employees face in accessing mental health care, including, “lack of insurance coverage, difficulty determining covered services, not knowing which resources are available, difficulty finding providers, and long wait times to get appointments.” Of critical importance to employers concerned about recruitment and retention, 60% of Gen Z respondents stated that access to such resources is important in their choice of employer, and 57% said it matters in their decision to stay. Employers should actively identify insurance policies that provide accessible and affordable mental health coverage, along with other support programmes for employees that include a range of benefits that can be accessed individually and in groups.

  1. Dedicate resources to projects and programmes that can alleviate workplace stress and isolation.

Employers should implement programmes that foster engagement, meaning, and social contact, helping to interrupt patterns established by diminished in-person interactions fueled by social media usage and pandemic-induced isolation. This includes opportunities for interaction that go beyond awkward social events that can be marred by excessive drinking and inappropriate behaviours. Programming that responds to other generational data about the importance of civic engagement can provide multiple benefits that include helping other people, and the environment, working together towards a common goal, and enhancing the organisation’s reputation.

  1. Commit to workplace policies that can be implemented with leadership commitment and without stigma.

 Even the best-written policies and programmes can be undermined by insufficient leadership support, inadequate communication of their availability, and a subculture that works to undermine the use of such policies by stigmatising those that do.

A whole-health approach to addressing a mental health crisis affecting the future workforce includes understanding what younger people are seeking from their employers. That means becoming familiar with the global data demonstrating the importance of work-life flexibility – a term that does not mean a complete absence from the office. It does, however, require leaders to understand that, in an increasingly complex world, managing all of life’s myriad obligations requires letting go of the dated notion that in-office attendance is necessary for tasks that can be done elsewhere.

The pandemic provided an important teaching opportunity for workplace leaders - flexibility can be an effective and critical retention tool. Now their challenge is to avoid reverting to old habits simply because they are easier and to recognise true flexibility as integrating employer and employee needs, including valued opportunities for being trained, mentored, and sponsored.

Younger generations need the help and support of the workplace in addressing their mental health needs. Employees are feeling stressed and anxious, not only about their own future, but the overall health of society and the planet.

Leaders have an important opportunity to implement a holistic and creative approach to management that offers an array of solutions to help support employee well-being and mental health. In doing so, they will be taking a giant step towards addressing their employees’ needs and concerns, and their own recruitment, engagement, and retention goals. The resulting culture change will ultimately benefit all generations in the workplace.

To learn more, read the OECD report Retaining Talent at All Ages

The deep and rapid changes in the world of work driven by the digital and green transformations as well as population ageing have been associated with greater job instability, with potential costs for companies, workers and society. The unprecedented labour and skill shortages that emerged during the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic have raised further the importance of developing and retaining talent. In the context of a more age-diverse workforce, addressing this challenge will require better working conditions, greater investments in training and tackling difficulties in reconciling work with health issues and caring responsibilities. This report presents evidence on recent trends in job tenure and employee turnover, how they have changed due to the COVID-19 shock and sheds light on why employees quit their jobs. It identifies key employer and public policies that can support increased employment retention through better job quality, health at the workplace, and training and skills.

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