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- The graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 have come of age at a time of uncertainty.
- Mental health is a priority for this Gen Zs and millennials.
- Employers need to take this generation’s values and priorities seriously.
- Insider has profiled 21 people who turned 21 in 2021, talking about how the past year has impacted their goals and mental health.
The classes of 2020 and 2021 – the graduates that endured an unprecedented global pandemic – have lofty aspirations and high expectations for their future. Despite a competitive and uncertain job market, they are hopeful, and strive to find opportunities to make a meaningful difference and build a foundation for fulfilling careers. Along with these hopes, the new generation also has new demands; they will expect employers to effectively and authentically prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing in the workplace.
According to Deloitte, mental health is the second-most important priority for Gen Zs and millennials (only outranked by physical health). For society, this is an exciting trend, given that mental health impacts every facet of the human experience – from work, to family life to our relationships and interactions with others. But young people’s emphasis on mental health might be uncomfortable for members of older generations, who were generally taught to keep mental health in the shadows.
When I was in college, I struggled with anxiety and went to a therapist, but I hid it from my friends. On the other hand, when my son was a freshman in college, he once casually mentioned that he had just seen his therapist. Of course, I immediately went into “dad mode” and asked him if something was going on. He laughed and said, “‘No!’ It’s free for freshmen, and why wouldn’t I go?”
I think it’s clear which attitude is healthier.
Corporate leaders will need to shift their thinking to be more like the next generation of employees. To attract and retain up-and-coming stars, we need to create work environments that take their values and priorities seriously. This means rethinking mental health constructs and assumptions that were likely in place when they were moving up in their career. Although ingrained attitudes and beliefs aren’t easy to change, any executive can create a supportive workplace environment by applying a few lessons I’ve learned over the course of 20 years as an executive.
- Accept that working environments can be part of the problem. As corporate leaders, we often take the approach that employees bring mental health challenges to work and we need to do things to help them. In reality, workplaces can contribute to those problems by imposing work demands that take a toll on employee wellbeing. A stronger sense of collective self-awareness and acknowledgement of this reality will help us progress.
- A supportive environment starts with openness at the top. As a CEO living with anxiety, I made a mistake: I hid my therapy and my medication from my colleagues for years. I should have realized that I had the power to define the conversation around mental health in my company. Had I spoken about my challenges—and invited my employees to share theirs—I could have cultivated a more open and supportive environment.
- Take the time to understand young employees and their priorities. Invest time in connecting with your employees to bridge the generational divide. Learn about their lives, their aspirations, and their challenges. Ask them directly – “what support do you need?” Young professionals want to feel heard; they want to know their wellbeing is valued, and they’ll take the opportunity to be candid if they trust that leaders truly have their best interests at heart.
- Embrace flexibility. In a diverse, modern workplace, employees have an array of work preferences and needs. A young professional just starting a family might benefit from having flexible or nontraditional working hours. Or a hybrid virtual and in-person work schedule might ease the burden on a new hire who has a grueling big-city commute. COVID has shown us that businesses have the creativity to successfully adapt to world-changing events, so they can certainly adapt to meet diverse employee needs.
- Ensure a right to disconnect and recharge. Young professionals tend to be very conscious of their work-life balance, but COVID-era remote work has blurred the lines. It’s crucial that leaders create an environment that lets employees disconnect from email, Slack and other forms of work communication during non-working hours. Employers should also encourage team members to take mental health days when needed to prevent burnout. Crucially, executives need to communicate – and demonstrate – that work-life boundaries are acceptable and expected by taking down time themselves.
- Provide tangible resources—and make them accessible. Fight to ensure that your organization has patient-focused, evidence-based employee wellbeing programs; employee assistance programs; and mental healthcare benefits functions. Employees should have mental healthcare that’s as easy to access as psychical healthcare—without bureaucratic, cost, or out of network roadblocks. With a wealth of mental health resources at their disposal, young professionals will be well equipped to take on the challenges of modern working life.
Progress comes when it’s time to hand over the keys. By elevating the priorities of recent graduates and young professionals, executives can create a healthier, happier, and more productive working environment that nurtures future leaders.
Daryl Tol is executive vice president at One Mind, an organization dedicated to brain health and advocacy.