Emotional Rescue?

Younger workers are increasingly seeking mental health assistance. Why this group is reaching out.

More paid time off. Increased wellness offerings. Supplemental coverage for counseling and other therapy. In recent years, organizations have adopted more mental health options for employees to get the help they need. 

And it still might not be enough.

New data shows a rise in employees seeking mental health assistance in the workplace, particularly among younger workers, who cite anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit disorder among the issues impacting performance. The increase in requests from employees to work from home, extend deadlines, or take time off to cope with mental health issues is complicating how performance is managed and problems are mediated. “It’s a very tricky topic for organizations, and it’s only going to get worse,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. 

Research shows that members of the Millennial and Gen Z generations, growing up against the backdrop of mass shootings and 24/7 social media, are more attuned to their own mental health than their baby boomer and Gen X counterparts. The workplace doesn’t seem to be helping: a recent major survey of some 10,000 workers found that 75% of millennials and Gen Zers say they feel lonely and isolated at work. All of which, corporate leaders well know, affects engagement and productivity. 

In many instances, how an organization approaches mental health is more a matter of culture than the law, says Ron Porter, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. To be sure, while human resources is responsible for fostering a culture that makes employees feel safe and cared for, they also have to ensure that performance expectations are met. Giving an employee who has been working 12-hours days for two weeks straight a “mental health” day off can be a way for leaders to refresh and motivate talent to perform at a high level, for instance. Doing the same for an employee who continually misses deadlines and fails to perform up to client expectations can undermine team goals and business outcomes. 

It’s a fine line for leaders to walk, and one that is increasingly being blurred. Last year, 371 discrimination cases related to mental health disorders were filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, a 471% increase from 2006. “Human resources must be involved if there is a dispute between manager and employee on matters like this because even though the issue is hard to see it should be taken very seriously,” says Porter. 

Indirectly, but perhaps more damaging, is the impact an organization’s approach to mental health can have on its ability to recruit talent. Kaplan says younger generations expect organizations to do more to help and enable workers to overcome mental health issues. Younger workers are already making career decisions based less on compensation and more around values, purpose, commitment to sustainability, among other non-financial considerations. “Organizations with a culture that fosters emotional wellbeing will have a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting top talent over those that don’t,” says Kaplan.