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How to Provide Support for Mental Health Across the Generations

Workplaces are paying more attention to the mental well-being of their employees. But with four generations in the workforce, it’s not always easy to offer the right mental health support. In this week’s blog, we discuss how different generations approach mental health, and how you can tailor your mental health strategy so there is truly something for everyone.

A multi-generational workforce offers numerous benefits.

Depending on your industry, you might have four generations in the workplace right now: Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964); Generation X (born between 1965–1980); Millennials (born between 1981–1996); and Gen Z (born between 1997–2012).

There’s no debating the benefits of having multiple generations in the workforce. Each age group brings a different set of skills, life experiences and perspectives to work. Older groups are able to pass knowledge to members of younger generations, while younger workers can help older employees more readily embrace new workplace technology and practices. Having a multi-generational workforce also leads to greater creativity and innovation, allowing businesses to adapt to rapidly changing markets.

But when it comes to mental health, each of these generations brings its own set of unique stressors and a distinct perspective on the issue, which means a one-size-fits all approach to mental health support can fall short.

How do members of different generations view mental health? And how can employers offer solutions that meet each generation’s needs?

Baby Boomers. It will come as no surprise that the Baby Boomer generation is not particularly comfortable discussing mental health in general, and even less comfortable bringing it up in a workplace setting. This generation grew up talking about mental health mostly in relation to mental illness or as the result of something traumatic, like fighting in a war or being involved in a devastating accident. They were taught to persevere through challenges and keep their emotions to themselves. So, the concept of mental health as something that we maintain or work on, as we do our physical health, will not be familiar to Baby Boomers.

How you can support them:

  • Foster open communication in the workplace about mental health and start to normalize discussions on the topic.
  • Promote the counseling services of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), as this generation may be more comfortable seeing a therapist in person or via video. The EAP is also a good resource for help with the life transitions this group will experience.
  • Form an Employee Resource Group (ERG) targeted at this age group. It can be a good venue both for discussing mental health and providing social connection with peers.
  • According to a study by McKinsey, Baby Boomers spend as much time on social media as Gen Zers. Utilize workplace social media to get the conversation going about mental health.
  • Offer special support for grief. Baby Boomers may be experiencing the death of friends and peers at this stage in their life, and this may have been exacerbated by the recent pandemic, which disproportionately impacted older adults.

Gen X. Like members of the Baby Boom generation, Gen Xers were also taught not to discuss emotions, or else they might be viewed as weak, especially in the workplace. This generation prizes their independence and resilience having grown up during numerous periods of inflation and recession. They were also the original “latchkey kids” who may have had two working parents, creating an “I can do it myself” mentality. None of this makes them particularly fond of discussing or working on their mental health. And yet, they can be among the most stressed generation in the workforce, as they juggle teenagers, aging parents, accelerating careers, paying for college, menopause and other health concerns.

How you can support them:

  • Educate them on the importance of self-care and encourage them to find ways to incorporate it into the workday, like taking a walk or engaging in meditation.
  • Offer flexibility for work hours and days to accommodate elder care obligations.
  • Provide menopause support for women.
  • Give access to stress management, resilience and financial wellness resources to help Gen Xers better manage the demands of work and life.
  • Form ERGs devoted to older parenting stages, which can be as stressful as taking care of younger children.

Millennials. Millennials are often termed the “anxious generation,” some say resulting from the rise of “helicopter,” or overly-involved parenting. They are also the first generation to grow up with access to the internet and technology, including social media—making them vulnerable to the pressure to be perfect and project a certain image. But they are also the pioneers when it comes to mental health. They were the first to talk openly about having a therapist or going to therapy. In the workplace, this generation values transparency, openness and authenticity. They also prioritize their well-being and they’re not afraid to advocate for it. Given their life stage, they may be experiencing real financial stress as they struggle to pay off student loans, start a family, or prepare for a major purchase, like a home.

How you can support them:

  • Provide access to digital tools, like virtual therapy and mental health apps.
  • Offer “mental health days” to support the notion that mental health is as important as physical health (note: this applies to all generations).
  • Recognize that this generation prizes boundaries between work and life, so respect them.
  • Take advantage of their willingness to talk about mental health by appointing them as mental health ambassadors in the organization.
  • Acknowledge the challenges of this phase of life by providing resources that can help with finances, parenting and relationships.

Gen Z. This generation has experienced a considerable amount of turmoil already in their young lives—the 2008 recession, political discord at home, geopolitical events abroad, climate change and school shootings. True “digital natives,” social media has been their forum for talking about mental health, which has helped break down the stigma. On the negative side, social media has also made them more susceptible to unhealthy feelings of comparison and fear of missing out (FOMO). Gen Zers lived through a pandemic at a particularly vulnerable stage of life, contributing to the skyrocketing rates of mental health concerns, particularly anxiety, that we are now seeing. Fortunately, Gen Zers are the most comfortable of all the generations discussing mental health and will be the first to say we should be prioritizing it as much as we do our physical health. At work, they’re seeking a sense of belonging, connection, inclusion, and purpose, and they value boundaries between work and life. Of all the generations, they also feel the most strongly that employers should provide support for mental health. 

How you can support them:

  • Connect Gen Zers with your mission and purpose to make them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Offer multiple modes of mental health counseling: in-person, digital, and group.
  • Educate less benefits-savvy Gen Zers about the behavioral health benefits offered through the medical plan.
  • Help this generation manage anxiety and stress by continuing to offer flexibility in terms of when and where work gets done.
  • Schedule regular check-ins to address workplace uncertainty that can contribute to Gen Z’s anxiety.
  • Match Gen Zers with a mentor or coach who can offer support and advice for career and life.
  • Plan company-sponsored activities to increase social connections—after-work meet-ups, in-office lunches, or a community service event.

Mental health support that works for all generations.

While different generations approach mental health differently, and understanding their unique needs can help us target the right solutions, there are certain mental health supports that apply across all populations.

Managers have a huge impact on the mental health of their employees. Training managers to be more empathetic and supportive is critical. Leaders can help to break down the stigma by modeling good mental health behaviors themselves, like sharing personal stories or openly talking about mental health.

Organizations can also take a hard look at workplace practices—unrealistic work expectations, norms around long hours, ensuring psychological safety, and practicing inclusivity—that contribute to stress and a lack of belonging. And every organization can support mental health simply by acknowledging that employees are human beings first, and workers second. Finally, communication is key. If employees of any generation don’t know about the mental health resources you provide, they won’t take advantage of them.

For help devising a mental health strategy that works for everyone in your workforce, contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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