Two years after the start of the pandemic, Generation Z workers are said to be experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of social and emotional wellbeing than any other single age group.They also have the least positive life outlook of any demographic.
In fact, US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy went so far as to describe the situation as a “youth mental health crisis” in a public health advisory published on 7 December last year.
To make matters worse, despite all the apparent workplace focus on staff wellbeing since the pandemic struck, however, a report by Deloitte called ‘A call for accountability and action’, revealed that a significant two out of five Gen Z workers felt their employer had done a poor job of supporting their mental wellbeing.
So what is going on here and what can employers do to help, particularly as the move to hybrid and flexible work starts to become more pervasive?
Beamery’s approach to wellbeing
Abakar Saidov, Chief Executive of cloud-based talent management software provider Beamery, believes that the various lockdowns, which are only now starting to lift in some areas of the world, threw up a number of issues:
Context is important. The Gen Z population consists of younger staff in their first or second job. So you have to think about things like where they’re living, with whom, their salary and what they can afford to do. For example, if you’re sharing a flat when working from home and you don’t have any outdoor space, it can be difficult to switch off. Also if you’re several decades into your career, you’re professionally more confident and know how to interact with colleagues.
But employees who have only been working for a couple of years generally aren’t as well versed in how to be a professional. So there’s been a lot of desire from Gen Z staff to go back into the office in order to feel more of a sense of connection and to get mentorship, support and leadership from their managers.
Indeed, the role of the line manager in promoting staff wellbeing is key, Saidov says. As a result, his firm has been investing in helping them to develop the skills they need to support employees – of all ages – more effectively. He explains:
There have always been various components that make a good manager but the move to hybrid working means they need to be added to. So one element is taking care of your people, ensuring they feel valued and that they’re learning and growing, and also that the team delivers. In a remote or hybrid environment, managers have to communicate better both on- and offline as people won’t be in the office each day. Teams have to find ways of working together effectively, which means being more thoughtful about how colleagues interact. It’s also important to think about communication points, how to upskill people, and invest in career trajectories in a more deliberate way.
The importance of listening
Given that the move to hybrid and flexible working is expected to take another 12 to 24 months to bed down properly though, Saidov expects there will be “quite a bit of trial and error” before employers get it right. But he believes that staff feedback will be a key part of the process, not least as any insights can then be fed into management training.
But this idea of listening to employees is important in other contexts too, including staff learning and development and career progression. Saidov explains:
You need to listen to what people are asking for and respond to it. It’s about a combination of them feeling supported and heard and also feeling a strong connection to the company and its purpose. It’s really important to create an environment where people feel confident and comfortable in being open too. But there’s really no silver bullet in terms of mental health.
Initiatives that the company has introduced to help in this context, however, include ‘Spark hours’, in which employees are assigned three hours every other Thursday to engage in activities, such as focused work or developing a new skill that does not have to be related to their day-to-day responsibilities.
On top of their annual leave, they are also entitled to take four days a year to help their mental health and wellbeing. A ‘Be Amazing at Beamery’ monthly allowance of $25 per month is also made available to spend on whatever people feel will help them “become their best self”.
Salesforce’s approach to supporting mental health
Another employer that takes the mental health of its workers seriously is Salesforce. It likewise found that some of its new joiners and younger workers struggled during lockdown due to issues, such as isolation and having lower levels of interaction with colleagues and managers than would normally be the case.
As a result, says Terri Moloney, Director of Employee Success, the company saw a “bit of a spike in attrition” as it was more difficult for people to “connect, and so there wasn’t the same loyalty or the same experience”. Another challenge was that young employees can prove more resistant to sharing their problems than older ones as they are “new, don’t know anyone and don’t want to say they can’t cope”. As Moloney points out:
Finding out what people are struggling with can be difficult. But we do employee surveys twice a year and wellbeing ones on an even more regular basis so the data enabled us to react very quickly to design programmes and resources for people and enable managers to fully engage.
Initiatives here included providing the entire workforce with access to an online, dedicated wellbeing coach, targeted on-demand workshops, and a wellbeing reimbursement scheme, which enables each employee to spend E100 ($110) per month how they want, for example, on massages, gym membership and the like.
At the end of last year, the company also rolled out what it called “asynch week” to 23,000 of its 75,431 employees around the world in order to explore the benefits and challenges of going meeting-free for five working days. The only exceptions to this no-meeting rule were training events, customer meetings and meetings to deal with critical business issues, but people were still able to communicate using tools, such as email and Slack.
To help them prepare, each participant was provided with a guide, which included tips, goals and expectations. A frequently-asked questions document also asked them to consider certain issues in advance, such as ‘what is a critical meeting?’, ‘how do I avoid feeling isolated?’ and ‘how do I keep projects on track?’ Moloney says of the experiment:
About 80% of people liked it as it freed up time for them to think and take breaks when they wanted to. It created a more balanced way of working as they could go at their own pace and rhythm. Technology means there can be so much coming at you all the time that sometimes you need room for a break. So the secret is to mix it up, so you give people the time and space to be successful.
Mental health is a complex and delicate subject that really needs to be dealt with sensitively. As a result, both Beamery and Salesforce chose not to single out their Gen Z workers for ‘special treatment’ per se, but to create inclusive programmes that individuals of all age groups could adapt to cater to their own unique needs, which makes sense.