Employers Must Support the Mental Health of Early-in-Career Professionals

By 2030, one-third of America’s workforce will be Generation Z. It’s imperative that companies begin preparing today for the shifts in attitudes, practices, and expectations that this will entail.

The changes are likely to be significant—not just because of generational differences, but because Gen Z is entering the workforce amid a national mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions and during a pandemic that disrupted workplace norms

Starting in 2020, as many companies pivoted to virtual operations, downsized, or closed altogether, millions of individuals were thrust into remote work, unemployment, abrupt career transitions, or even early retirement. During this time of uncertainty, many people reassessed their lives and how work should fit into the overall picture. More than 38 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, leading to what has come to be known as the “Great Resignation.”

This has all been formative for Gen Z, who seem less beholden to traditional career pathways:

  • Gen Zers are changing jobs at a rate 134% higher than they were in 2019.
    • For comparison, millennials are switching 24% more and baby boomers 4% less. 
  • 75% of Gen Zers are willing to change career paths and industries.
    • For comparison, this is true for less than half of millennials and boomers.

Gen Z is watching previous generations closely and determining if they want to pursue jobs, cultures, and conditions that might feel thankless or negatively impact their mental health (citing examples such as lack of recognition, emotionally draining work, and poor work-life balance). So far, it looks like young people are opting to prioritize their mental well-being, in addition to stable professional paths, in an increasingly turbulent world.

The Jed Foundation (JED) believes that employers should support this changing landscape by acknowledging the mental health challenges of workers today and improving workplace cultures and conditions to address them. That is especially necessary to promote the continued well-being of early-in-career professionals, whose long-term success—and ability to thrive—will be impacted by their foundational experiences in the workforce.

Research shows:

  • 76% of surveyed workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year.
  • 84% reported experiencing at least one workplace factor that negatively impacted their mental health, including emotionally draining work and challenges with work-life balance.
  • 50% of full-time workers have left a previous job due, at least in part, to mental health reasons (up from 20% in 2019). This number rose to 81% for Gen Z.

Adults spend the majority of their time at work, which means that employers can positively impact their mental health—and that of incoming professionals—through supportive culture and conditions.

They can do that by:

  • Understanding how mental health impacts employees: Offer leadership training that will help them recognize the signs of emotional distress and respond in a way that’s helpful, not punitive. 
  • Providing competitive and comprehensive mental health benefits, which might include low-cost or free access to treatment, as well as a proactive wellness culture that encourages self-care (such as supplying healthy food at the office, offering athletic facility and club membership reimbursements, onsite mindfulness training, time off for self-care, and more).
  • Communicating about mental health resources: Once the benefits above are established, they should be made available and promoted year-round. Discussions about mental health shouldn’t be limited to open enrollment periods (or brought up in retrospect; for example, after a tragic event in the news).
  • Promoting social connectedness among employees: Creating opportunities for staff members to connect, including through social events and virtual message boards, can make work enjoyable and engaging. Strong, positive workplace relationships are an irreplaceable source of support and ensure that any stressed employees aren’t working in isolation. 
  • Offering flexibility: A LinkedIn survey found Gen Z workers were 77% more likely to engage with job postings that mentioned “flexibility” than those that didn’t. Early-in-career professionals are pursuing stability, as well as supported pathways to long-term success; therefore, it is appealing to select positions that might allow them to explore different opportunities, environments, and ways of working to meet any changing interests or needs.

A good place to start is a review of health insurance benefits, which may include mental health coverage, access to employee assistance programs, and even wellness stipends. However, one critique is that these methods put the responsibility on the individual (and, as JED recognizes, help-seeking is often difficult for those in crisis). If these are available, they should be equally available to all employees, and employees should be regularly reminded of their benefits and how to access them.

Supporting employee mental health does not need to be resource-intensive. One study found that the most desired mental health “resource” was simply an open culture about mental health at work. Though 65% of those surveyed said that they had talked to someone at work about their mental health in the past year, only 49% received a positive or supportive response when they did so. Gen Zers are generally more open to talking about their mental health, suggesting that these workplace conversations will increasingly become the norm.

JED’s work has identified the necessity of fostering a culture of caring surrounding mental health in schools; this concept also extends to the workplace. At work, this can positively impact recruiting, productivity, and retention. 

Gen Z is a rising workforce that will shape the future face of work. Their ability to flourish and form healthy relationships on the job will likely impact not only their own output and morale, but the way they lead and influence the generations that follow.

As Americans continue to reimagine what the “office” will look like in the aftermath of the pandemic, employers can and must reimagine what a culture of mental health in the workplace looks like, too.

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Find more ways to get help & feel better in our RESOURCE CENTER.

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