Health Management Consultant
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that a record 32.54 million people are in work in the UK1 ; a statistic that looks fantastic on the surface and one that many will celebrate, particularly from a political standpoint. However, mental health issues in the workplace and presenteeism because of mental health is also at an all-time high, with 22% of employees going into work in 2018 despite feeling mentally un-well – up from 18% in 20162. It is possible that there is a correlation between an increasing workforce and an increase in workplace mental health issues; but there are numerous confounding influencing variables which pose a challenge for companies.
The modern workplace: demographic challenges
One major challenge businesses face with an increasingly large workforce is the widening of the age demographic and differing attitudes towards mental health. For the first time in history, we are seeing five generations of employees in the workforce which are socially segmented into different groups3:
Individuals born after 1997, socially referred to as ‘Generation Z’, are now entering the workforce and people from previous generations are working past retirement or even re-entering the workforce after a few years after retiring. As a result, employers are facing an enormous variance in attitudes towards work and mental health as a wider age demographic go to work.
Those born between 1981 – 1996 or ‘Millennials’ make up 35% of the UK workforce4, which by 2020 will rise to an astonishing 50% of the workforce worldwide5. The media portrays an image that Generation Z and Millennials are the ‘entitled generation’, highly ‘confident’ and are thought to strive for flexibility in the workplace rather than a higher salary. Despite being driven and aiming for success, anxiety and depression are widespread amongst this age demographic. Finances are a key influencing factor; millennials as a generation are struggling and are generally stuck in ‘rent traps’. Unaffordable property prices place them under enormous financial pressure, whilst they find themselves competing against the impossibly shiny social media personas of their peer groups.6.
A study conducted in 2015 by American University found that Millennials are more accepting of others with mental illness, as they grew up hearing about depression, anxiety, suicide and eating disorders7. So, whilst mental health issues amongst Millennials are increasing, they are also more willing to speak about their struggles than previous generations. The positive side of social media means that there is an easy-to-access platform to speak out about discrimination and stigma in the workplace.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the age demographic are the ‘baby boomers’, people born between the years 1946 - 1964 who may have neglected their mental health due to the negative association with the term for most of their working lives; research suggests that only one in five workers of this age group feel that it’s appropriate to discuss mental health8. According to an intergenerational study by Bupa, workers aged 55+ are most likely to avoid seeking help for symptoms associated with mental ill health9. Thirty-two percent of working baby boomers felt they could identify symptoms of depression and 27% for anxiety. In contrast, 56% of Gen Z workers felt confident that they could identify anxiety and 49% were aware of depression.
Interestingly, from the same study two thirds of Baby Boomer employees stated that they were suffering from anxiousness, insomnia, feelings of hopelessness and continuous low mood. However, they were not able to identify these symptoms to a corresponding mental illness. This is in line with research by Ashlyn M. Avera (2017)10 who explored the differences in mental health education across Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. A significant correlation between each year of life gained and a decreased ability in identifying mental health symptoms and correctly matching these to their linked illness was found; suggesting that ‘Baby Boomers’ have a lack of awareness of mental health symptoms and their associated conditions.
What about the middle generation that is currently making up most of the workforce and 51% of leadership roles11? Generation X are traditionally thought of as the forgotten generation, as most of the focus has been on the retiring baby boomers and the media focuses heavily on millennials. Generation X are typically expected to take on a heavier workload and are more likely to be overlooked for a promotion. They are also sandwiched between two generations and often must take on a caregiving role for both ageing parents and their own children12. This understandably has a negative effect on mental health, and therefore this generation are at high risk of anxiety related disorders, depression and even substance misuse.13
What can employers do?
Although there are significant differences in attitudes towards mental health across the various generations, there are several measures that companies can put in place which can benefit the entire workforce from a mental health perspective.
Organisations need to create a culture which supports staff to understand the symptoms of mental health and allow adjustments specific to an individual’s needs. Employers who have an organisation culture of openness, awareness and acceptance are more likely to be aware of the importance of supporting mental health and wellbeing. This can be achieved by having mandatory training on wellbeing and activities to support employee resilience. Research shows that early stage supporting activities can increase Return on Investment (ROI) by 8:114.
An employer can also support individuals suffering from mental health symptoms through diagnostic/screening tools or provide training to employees to spot the signs in themselves or others. This support could take the form of training, use of employee assistance programmes or discussions around work load or styles. Research suggests that ROI can increase by 6:1 using these proactive interventions.
It's important that workplaces promote mental health and encourage selfcare to allow all generations to be successful in their careers. Being a company that supports mental health for their employees not only helps individuals reach their full potential, it also helps to attract and retain top talent from a pool of hardworking and dedicated individuals. This is particularly important when attracting the younger generations and encouraging future leaders to flourish.
For more information or to discuss any of the issues outlined in this article, please get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling us on 0344 573 0033.
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