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While supporting all generations

By Patrick Williams


Younger generations coming into the workforce are suffering more from mental health issues than their older counterparts. In fact, millennials are near the top of the list for groups vulnerable to mental health woes.

A 2017 poll conducted by global research firm Ipsos showed that an eye-opening 63 per cent of Canadian millennials as “high risk” for mental health issues. That’s compared to only 41 per cent of Gen Xers who fell into that category. This matches what is being seen more broadly as well. In a U.S. poll conducted by Quartz magazine in December 2018, 18 per cent of respondents said they are experiencing anxiety or depression to the point where it disrupts their work. The rate was nearly twice as high (30 per cent) among millennial and Gen Z employees (aged 18-34).

There are new pressures affecting younger employees, the likes of which have never been seen before, such as social media, as well as financial pressures around housing. However, when it comes to HR’s role in supporting this demographic effectively, the key is to get the balance right between tailoring support for all demographics and not generalizing, stereotyping or neglecting other age groups who might be struggling in different ways, and potentially less visibly.

The workforce today is made up of four generations of employees – Matures (born before 1946), Boomers (born between 1946 and1964), Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), and Gen Yers or millennials (born between 1981 and 2000). With these generations come some differences in learning styles and a variety of differences in knowledge, perspective and expertise. It’s essential to encourage employees of all generations to be proactive about finding opportunities to learn and stay fresh, focused and motivated.

It’s claimed that millennials feel the pressures of work stress far more than their older counterparts and while there are statistics to support this, it’s also important to consider that millennials are also more open and honest about mental health, whereas older generations still suffer from some residual stigma. That’s why millennials are increasingly being seen within companies as driving mental health awareness.

For instance, footwear and clothing brand Dr. Martens has internal teams known as the “Culture Vultures” and “Rebel Souls” that are also responsible for driving the well-being agenda at Dr. Martens, including a focus on mental health. Dr. Martens has become one of a number of organizations that has created mental health first responders to support the mental wellness of employees in much the same way traditional first responders do physically.

“We have a lot of millennials in the organization and I think they’re the people that talk about it much more. They’re much better at sharing when it comes to mental health. I think some of us slightly older ones don’t talk about it as much as perhaps we should. So, I think it’s been great to see that mental health isn’t a taboo subject in this organization and I think a lot of that has come from the millennials – they’ve done a great job of raising the profile,” said Helen Verwoert, global HR director at Dr. Martens.

It’s true that millennials also face some unique pressures. Today, many adults take care of both their children and their parents. These adults are known as “the sandwich generation” because their needs often become caught, or sandwiched, between those of the older and younger generations. Members of the sandwich generation are typically between 35 and 60 years old. They frequently struggle to meet the many needs of their children and aging parents at a time when they are also busy working and planning their own futures. Many of those people say that they provide financial assistance, emotional help and practical assistance with daily activities.

As there are currently more millennials in the workforce than there are Baby Boomers, they have many age peers to compete with in the workplace. Like all younger workers, they want as many training and growth opportunities as possible. Research suggests that millennials (like the other generations) want to work for organizations that respect individual differences, promote work-life balance, pay well and are socially responsible.

This can make the workplace challenging. Matures, who have established many of the norms in companies, may prefer the status quo because it’s worked so well in the past. Baby Boomers, who have had to compete for everything they’ve accomplished, may not want to hand over projects that give them power and influence. Gen Xers, who have proven their ability to handle large assignments, may not want to pass those assignments on to others. Millennials, who are still working to prove themselves, may not want to give up the very leadership that will showcase what they know. On the other hand – in general – people in positions of authority have too much to do. In this case, there’s much to be said about sharing experience and responsibilities across generations. Sharing responsibility can bring a whole new perspective to the project and build trust with co-workers.

Supporting each generation and their specific needs can be a huge time constraint for management and bringing in an EAP allows employers to assist individuals across all levels. As mentioned, each generation requires different levels of support and employers can pick and choose which elements will assist their entire workforce. Whether that includes on-site counselling for Matures or gamified apps to boost engagement by millennials. Age gaps in the workplace is not a new concept, but now there is an abundance of tools and options available to employers to properly support each generation.


Patrick Williams, LMFT, CEAP, is the clinical director of LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell.




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