Mental health has become an increasingly important topic in workplaces over the past few decades. With growing awareness and reduced stigma surrounding mental health issues, employees today expect and demand more support from their employers when it comes to wellbeing and mental healthcare. However, with up to five different generations now present in many workforces, managing and supporting mental health can be a complex undertaking. Each generation has different expectations, attitudes, and communication styles when it comes to mental health. Successfully navigating this landscape requires nuance, adaptability, and openness from both employers and employees.
Today we will provide an overview of how perspectives on mental health differ across generations, summarizing key generational traits that impact this topic. We will then expound on the main considerations for managers seeking to support employee mental health across multiple generations. Detailed examples will illustrate how to tailor communication, programs, and policies to meet the needs of younger and older employees alike. With insight, compassion, and commitment, today’s multigenerational workplaces can become environments where employees of all ages feel safe, supported, and empowered to nurture their mental wellbeing.
Generational Attitudes Towards Mental Health
Baby Boomers: Born between 1946-1964, Baby Boomers were shaped by rapidly changing social norms and attitudes during their youth. However, mental health remained highly stigmatized for much of this generation's upbringing. As a result, many Baby Boomers still view mental health challenges as private matters not to be discussed openly. This generation tends to see admitting to mental health issues at work as taboo and potentially career-limiting. Baby Boomers often believe they should handle problems independently and may be skeptical of employers' motivations around mental health initiatives. However, they also tend to be loyal employees likely to stay in roles for years if treated well.
Generation X: Born between 1965-1980, Generation X had more openness to discussing mental health than previous generations. However, stigma certainly existed in their youth as well. Gen Xers tend to be independent and may not feel comfortable reaching out for support at work. They often prefer self-reliance and can be cynical of "touchy-feely" mental health initiatives. But Gen Xers also value authenticity and directness in the workplace. Simple, judgement-free support and accommodations from managers are often most effective for this cohort.
Millennials: Born between 1981-1996, Millennials are the first generation to enter the workforce with significantly reduced stigma around mental health struggles. More comfortable with vulnerability, they expect openness, dialogue, and support from employers. Millennials tend to see mental healthcare as a standard component of benefits packages. They desire holistic wellness support and are often advocates for mental health in the workplace. However, stereotypes about younger workers being coddled or entitled mean some millennials may avoid seeming needy, even if they want support.
Generation Z: Born after 1996, Generation Z are the first true digital natives. This cohort has been exposed to mental health dialogues from a very young age, and many openly discuss topics like anxiety, depression, and trauma. Gen Zers consider employer-provided mental health support simply part of a decent workplace. They desire open communication, tolerance, and acceptance from managers and colleagues. However, Gen Z's youth means they have more limited work experience navigating mental health challenges professionally.
Key Considerations for Supporting Mental Health
With myriad generational perspectives converging, what should today's managers do to support mental health in their multigenerational workplaces? Key considerations include:
Normalizing Open Dialogue: Reduce stigma by talking about mental health regularly, not just during crises. Share your own experiences where appropriate, and ensure employees know they can speak openly without judgment. But avoid assuming all younger workers are comfortable sharing intimate details - ask about individual preferences.
Providing Flexible Options: Do not rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health support. Offer a range of options like confidential counseling, peer support groups, manager training, and individual accommodations. Employees can then choose what suits their needs and comfort levels best. Publicize all available resources regularly so workers know what is available.
Maintaining Confidentiality: Respect employee privacy and assure workers that mental health disclosures will remain confidential whenever appropriate. Disclose sensitive information only on a need-to-know basis with relevant parties such as HR. Reassure Baby Boomers in particular that mental health will not impact career prospects.
Destigmatizing Mental Health Days: Treat sick days for mental health the same as those for physical illness. Do not require details from employees taking mental health days. Likewise, excuse mental health absences from attendance bonuses or evaluations. Make sure policies are clear so all generations understand mental health days are valid and confidential.
Training Managers: Provide managers with training on supporting employees with mental health needs, avoiding discrimination, and creating psychologically safe teams. Give managers resources to refer employees to if they cannot provide specialized support. Ensure leaders role model openness and vulnerability when appropriate.
Evaluating Needs: Conduct anonymous surveys to gauge what support employees most need and want. Ask about preferences regarding boundaries, accommodations, time off, counseling, peer support, etc. Update offerings based on evolving multigenerational workforce needs.
Examples of Multigenerational Support
Tailoring mental health support for a multigenerational workforce in action could look like:
Assuring a Baby Boomer Struggling with Burnout: Jim, a 60-year-old accountant, quietly schedules a meeting with his manager. He admits he's been burning out from long hours spent on complex projects. However, Jim emphasizes he can still perform well and does not want any changes to assignments or duties. Understanding Jim may fear admitting vulnerability, his boss simply shares stories of her own burnout experiences. She then reassures Jim his performance is excellent and his job is secure, but mentions a few accommodations like flex scheduling or remote work just in case they are ever helpful. She also reminds Jim that HR can provide confidential counseling with an outside provider if desired.
Destigmatizing Therapy for a Gen X Worker: Kira, a 48-year-old senior engineer, tells her manager she will be coming in late twice a week for the next couple months to attend therapy appointments. Kira seems nervous about sharing this information. Her manager responds supportively, letting Kira know he has also found therapy very helpful during difficult times. He asks if there is anything else Kira needs to support her treatment and schedule. Kira admits she was worried about judgment from leadership but feels better after the open conversation. Her manager follows up by sending an encouraging email applauding Kira for prioritizing her mental health.
Accommodating an Anxious Millennial New Hire: Amir, a 25-year-old marketing associate just starting at the company, speaks up in a team meeting to say he has struggled with social anxiety in new work environments. He asks if he can initially take on more individual assignments. His manager responds that they will make adjustments to support Amir's needs. The team works together to brainstorm various accommodations if social interactions feel difficult initially. Amir's willingness to speak up openly encourages others to share mental health experiences as well.
Ensuring Psychological Safety for Generation Z: At an organization-wide mental health seminar, young Gen Z employees highlight feeling unsafe on teams where colleagues make insensitive jokes about mental illness. Leadership takes this feedback seriously and launches new anti-discrimination training. They also allow anonymous reporting of inappropriate mental health comments. Gen Z workers' advocacy leads to improved psychological safety for all generations. The organization takes pride in proactively meeting the needs of their emerging young workforce.
In today's multigenerational workplaces, mental health support must meet diverse needs and perspectives. With open communication, inclusive policies, confidentiality protections, anti-stigma training, and flexible accommodations, employers can demonstrate commitment to wellbeing across generations. Most importantly, both managers and employees must recognize that vulnerability and understanding are necessary to create psychologically healthy work for all. By following the considerations and examples above, organizations can become welcoming places for employees of all ages to thrive both personally and professionally.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.