Millennials and Mental Health in the Workplace

Millennials are struggling with mental health, and it’s impacting productivity in the workplace. According to a study by BDA|Morneau Shepell, one in five millennials that used the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) reported experiencing depression and nearly a third reported experiencing anxiety.

A rise in mental health issues is costly to society, both in hard dollars, productivity and lives. Mental illness is linked to absenteeism, hospitalization, chronic medical conditions and death by suicide. The BDA|Morneau Shepell study found that in millennials reporting anxiety and depression, presenteeism, or attending work but not functioning at full capacity, was a major issue.

As millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force according to Pew Research Center, employers also have a responsibility to understand and support mental health in the workplace – not only for millennials, but also for all employees.

Impact of Mental Health on the Workplace

In the workplace, mental illness impacts performance through absenteeism and presenteeism, among other factors. This kind of impact has a ripple effect, affecting employees, employers and the greater society.

Impact on employees. Regardless of whether a workplace environmental factor or an external factor triggered a mental health issue, employees with poor mental health are likely to be less productive, have fewer career prospects and suffer from other health issues. It can be a challenge to take the necessary mental health days for employees to recover, either due to policies or social stigmas. For example, according to a report by Deloitte, 95% of employees who took time off for stress recovery cited something else as the reason. Stress-related illness is not a small factor: 37% of all work-related poor health cases were spurred by work-related stress, according to Deloitte. For some employees, untreated mental health issues can also result in job loss. According to the Mental Health at Work Report, 9% of employees who reported symptoms of poor mental health also received disciplinary action at work – in some cases, dismissal, and 15% of employees who disclosed a mental health issue to a manager became subject to demotion, dismissal or disciplinary procedures.

Impact on employers. Poor mental health impacts employers through illness-related absences, employees working on a sub-par level, and job turnover, when employees resign as a result of their mental health. While these numerous factors make it difficult to measure the impact to the bottom line, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates this costs about $193.2 billion in lost earnings in the U.S.

Impact on society. As has already been highlighted, one issue caused by mental health issues is job loss, which ultimately means individuals suffering from mental health issues also lose their insurance, and then can add strains to public health costs, particularly given the link between poor mental health and declining physical health. People with mental health issues are almost four times as likely to use unplanned hospital care for issues that may have been avoidable, according to Deloitte.

What Employers Can Do

Although increasing mental health issues among millennials is a serious issue, it is not a hopeless one. Employers can take steps to offer support and address mental health issues by adopting the following practices:

Take mental health seriously. Employers must recognize that depression and other mental health issues are equally serious as physical ailments. In fact, not taking mental health seriously can perpetuate the problem in several ways. For example, organizations that don’t encourage conversations about mental health – or worse, allow stigmas around discussions of mental health a foothold – may, as a result, underestimate the impact mental health has within their organization. Deflated estimates of mental health issues then deprioritize mental health on the organization’s priorities, and the problem is exacerbated.

Offer – and encourage – mental health days. Promoting mental health days is equally important to offering them, as stigmas can prevent employees from capitalizing on them if the culture doesn’t encourage it. How do you encourage mental health days? By asking leaders in the organization to be transparent when they are taking a mental health day to model the practice. Take a page out of software company Olark, and encourage employees to take mental health days themselves. When one of Olark’s employees emailed the organization to communicate she was taking a mental health day, not only did CEO Ben Congleton reply, he thanked her for cutting through stigmas and setting an example, according to Forbes.

Employers should also keep in mind that some mental health conditions, like depression, may be chronic. A handful of mental health days in that instance may not suffice, and policies need to accommodate people who need ongoing mental health care – just as policies support ongoing physical conditions.

Foster mental health awareness. Mental health awareness has risen in general, and with it, an expectation that employers will engage in helping to combat poor mental health. Encouraging public conversations, offering educational campaigns and partnering with networks or alliances that support mental health can help foster a culture of mental health awareness at an organization.

Promote self-care techniques like meditation and mindfulness. Many organizations already offer some degree of wellness education, hitting on areas like regular health screenings, healthy eating or exercise incentives. But many employers fall short when it comes to addressing depression. Alongside existing wellness education programs, employers should also offer self-care and coping techniques that may help employees with depression. In fact, Forbes notes, mindful meditation has been proven to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety.

Require employee and manager training. Employers can offer training for employees that also contributes to mental health awareness and offers skills for managing mental health. Being proactive is vital to helping millennials in the workplace, according to medical director Gabriela Cora, M.D., D.F.A.P.A., and mandatory training establishes a proactive approach as part of the culture. In addition, managers should also be trained on fostering workplace wellbeing and recognizing signs of depression in their employees.

Provide resources. In addition to extensive training, organizations can offer resources like on-site counselors or remote healthcare as part of employee benefits to support employees at an individual level. An on-site counselor may be mutually beneficial. For employees, they have access to care onsite, whether for a referral or to address a mental health crisis event. For employers, some companies have found the cost of an onsite counselor is easily offset, according to Forbes, as this type of proactive care keeps more care onsite and reduces the number of costly emergency services. Remote care, like phone or video coaching, according to the American Journal of Managed Care, has also been shown to improve outcomes and reduce cost.

Target millennials with employee assistance programs. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) help employees identify and resolve issues that could impact their job performance. These worksite-based programs or resources can help to identify, prevent and resolve mental health issues. Millennials tend to be more open to asking for help, which makes EAPs a good fit. The Office of Disability Employment Policy recommends several practical methods for engaging millennials with EAPs: revamp promotional materials to appeal to younger workers, attract younger workers to seminars with relevant topics (like time management, financial issues, or stress) or leave memorable takeaways with employees at benefits fairs.

Understanding millennials’ expectations and perspective on the workplace is a critical component in understanding how mental health impacts the workplace. Particularly, in recognizing several elements that can correlate to millennials’ mental health, such as heavy digital connectivity, stress and even the psychological life stage of transitioning to adulthood, according to an article written by Marie-Helene Pelletier, Assistant Vice President, Workplace Mental Health for Sun Life Financial.

As millennials continue to age into the workforce – and into leadership roles – employers have an obligation to champion mental health. Better understanding and better resources are critical to helping millennial employees combat mental health issues, which is important for company and societal success.

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