By Holly Riddle
The last few years have brought major upheaval to the business world, impacting employers and employees alike. The strains of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic shifts and global conflicts have caused mental health concerns on a broad scale at home, with those concerns leaking into the workplace. In turn, poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. And, atop it all, a new generation of workers is changing the mental health landscape, reducing stigma and making demands of employers to better their mental health both in the office and at home.
But while the challenge of supporting employee mental health may seem daunting in the face of all of the above, Happy Valley employers are rising to the occasion. Here’s how just a few are proving that close attention to employees’ mental health is important now more than ever, both for companies’ bottom lines and employee retention.
“As Gen Zers, who are the college students of today and for the next decade, graduate from college and move into the workforce, what we've been seeing there is a lot of things that are very similar to what we are seeing in college: rising rates of anxiety and depression, and a lot more employee mental health issues and stress issues,” said Dr. Katharine “Kate” Staley, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and founder and principal at River Rocks Consulting. “These trends were apparent even before the pandemic, but the pandemic has certainly exacerbated Gen Z distress.”
Founded in 2021, River Rocks Consulting offers consulting for employers and other organizations, including educational institutions, in the mental health and wellness arena, with a special focus on students and younger, new employees.
"There's more power in the employee than there used to be."
“The label that one hears and reads about regarding Gen Z is that something's wrong with them — that they're not that resilient. They’re not stoic, like older generations. Over and over again, I get asked ‘Why do they have so many problems? Why are they so anxious? Why can't they show up for interviews? Why can't they get to work on time? Why do they need to have their hands held so much?’ I think that's a real injustice to Gen Z,” Staley explained. “I think that if businesses understood the unique stressors Gen Zers have had to deal with, they would understand why they are having some mental health issues. Employers would feel more compassionate, and offer more support to them. I think that they would see that Gen Zers are remarkably resilient, in fact, and incredible workers. It’s really worth investing a little bit extra to provide more support early on, as they transition into the workplace, and to be thoughtful about what types of support might be most helpful, so that Gen Z can be as productive and focused on reaching their optimal development, as well as helping their companies achieve their goals, too.”
Staley explained that there are a variety of reasons why Gen Z is experiencing more mental health issues in the workplace, including the generation’s unique stressors, such as growing up as digital natives, their exposure to social media, their very real concern about climate change and the simple fact that they’ve grown up in a “very politically and culturally divisive world.”
On a broader scale, looking at all employees across all generations, Dr. Erika Saunders, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says she’s seen more instances, recently, of individuals with complaints that their work negatively impacts their mental health.
“[There are] the financial issues that people have experienced in the past two years. The illness-related issues have heightened the need for people to have stable work. Of course, work is linked, in our system, to health care benefits. That's a critical factor for many folks who, for example, stay in jobs just to have the benefit, whereas they might otherwise want to change jobs,” she explained. “Also, [there’s] the increased stress that people have been feeling — the increased stress on companies, on businesses, to perform in the environment, the supply chain challenges. The low staffing at many companies in certain sectors of business has put stress on workers, particularly health care workers, and that has impacted people's wellness at work.”
But are issues such as climate change and Gen Z’s social media usage necessarily problems employers should care about? Both Saunders and Staley pointed out the very real consequences that arise when employers either do or do not show concern for their employees’ mental health needs and the issues that impact them.
“Healthy workers are able to do the work in the workplace that is needed,” said Saunders. "We know that people who are happy and healthy are much more productive at work, regardless of the number of hours worked. That is, you don't have to work more hours to be more productive, but if you have a healthy, happy worker, they're more productive in the time that they're there.”
"The last few years have brought to light the stressors that can damage individual and collective mental health."
Staley noted that employers who care about Gen Z workers’ stressors and the issues that cause them stress — such as sustainability, climate change, work-life balance and diversity — will have a greater chance at attracting and then retaining those workers.
“I think that companies that can really invest in diversity practices and in diversity hiring, and pay attention to that authentically, not just with lip service, are really going to be ahead of the game,” she said. “There's a lot of data actually coming out of both England and America that [Gen Z workers] are interested in working for places that have sustainability practices, that have diversity-focused hiring, that have a place that is more gender-neutral and more accepting and inclusive on both gender and race and ethnicity. I think those are things that companies should pay attention to, even with or without Gen Z being involved. But, when you add Gen Z into the mix, if you're trying to appeal to Gen Z and if you're trying to get them to work for you, those are things that they're really paying attention to … There's more power in the employee than there used to be. I think it pays for employers to really focus on investing in those practices of sustainability, diversity and the like — to look at the data on Gen Z’s values and how they are focused on working at organizations and businesses that align with their values.”
All of the above is no surprise for some Happy Valley employers, though.
As Lisa Bowman, director of people, culture and community at Blue Mountain Quality Resources noted, “The last few years have brought to light the stressors that can damage individual and collective mental health. Social issues, physical concerns, family support needs, environmental and natural disasters are affecting our lives.” As such, Blue Mountain strives to create an environment that “encourages open communication, promotes awareness of the pressure and stress and eliminates the stigma of mental health issues.”
How does the company do it?
Managers conduct frequent check-ins with employees. In addition to traditional paid time off, Blue Mountain offers “We Got This” paid time off, which Bowman noted is not limited by a bank of time or accrual schedules or specific reasons. It’s adaptable and flexible and is built to reduce some of the pressure and stress employees may experience. Employees also receive paid parental leave and paid birth mother recovery time. The company is remote-first and employees can work from home if and when they choose, and it boasts a diversity network with programs to focus on issues of interest for under-represented or marginalized groups.
These choices and more pay off for Blue Mountain. Bowman said, “When employees’ mental health needs are supported by Blue Mountain they have more energy, produce more and better quality of work, are highly engaged in innovation and improvements, and have good job satisfaction and loyalty to Blue Mountain. Being intentional in our awareness of our employees’ needs and thoughtful of the ways we can meaningfully support those needs has allowed us to have great employee retention and employee engagement.”
At Minitab, Susanne Marder, global manager of fitness and wellness, noted something similar. She said, “If an employee is struggling with mental health, it goes straight to the bottom line. Struggling with mental health could lead to difficulty focusing, lower productivity or not responding well with co-workers. Poor health can lead to higher turnover, which is expensive and hard on a company culture — that is why a culture of health is a business imperative.”
As such, Minitab supports employee mental health through a wide range of initiatives and programs, which all starts with what Marder calls “excellent health insurance.” Beyond this, though, weekly check-ins with managers allow for open communication. The global headquarters boasts a 24-7 gym and an on-site yoga studio with free weekly classes, as well as a pool and golf and game simulator. Mindfulness classes are available on demand, too, and employees also have access to a nutritionist.
At Drucker Diagnostics, mental health-related initiatives include monthly gifts of appreciation, regular check-in meetings and an open-door policy with supervisors, but Tom Mallison, president at Drucker Diagnostics, emphasized the particular importance of truly getting to know a team, so that management can provide support when and how it's needed.
"If an employee is struggling with mental health, it goes straight to the bottom line."
He said, “Commit to being flexible and supportive with employees that come to you with mental health or personal issues. Create and advocate for an environment of trust, safety and confidentiality, without judgment. Know the resources available to your employees so that you can quickly make referrals when necessary. Get to really know your employees so that you can recognize the signs of mental illness or when things just don’t seem right with someone on your staff. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and be ready for the answers.”
He added, “When our employees feel valued and safe, they are happier. They work more efficiently with the team and have stronger productivity and performance. The overall nature of the workplace is elevated.”
It’s worth noting that, while the above employers make it look easy, changing a workplace’s culture to better employee mental health is easier said than done. However, if you want to make a change in your own workplace, there are recommended places to start making those changes.
Staley mentioned the benefits of a hybrid, flexible approach to work; employers investing in employee assistance programs that connect employees with mental health professionals; and support services like employee memberships to gyms or yoga and mindfulness studios. However, for an even simpler start, employees can simply ask their employees for feedback and what changes they’d like to see, and what issues are most important to them. Whatever changes employers make, though, she cautioned that those changes must be authentic, if they hope to be effective.
"Get to really know your employees so that you can recognize the signs of mental illness or when things just don’t seem right with someone on your staff. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and be ready for the answers."
Saunders added, beyond providing access to mental health resources, employers need to recognize “that when someone is spending eight hours of their day in an environment, that is a huge part of their life. Setting up opportunities for people to have fun at work and that provide chances to de-stress during the day is really important.”
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer covering business and lifestyle topics in the Happy Valley region and beyond. She can be reached for comments and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.