What Gen Z Gets Wrong About Work: Talking Too Much About Mental Health

Generation Z wants to talk about mental health. These days, they want to talk about it in the office.

This comfort with vulnerability should come as no surprise. Generation Zers grew up amid a movement to destigmatize mental illness and encourage people to get treatment. They have seen suicide rates rise, especially among their peers. They've seen celebrities like Selena Gomez, Simone Biles, and Demi Lovato speak out about once-taboo topics like bipolar disorder, depression, and ADHD. Over the past few years, they have seen rates of depression and anxiety rise to their highest levels. They felt increasingly empowered to be open about their struggles, support their coworkers, and pressure management for better benefits.

In a recent survey of American businesses conducted by Mercer Consulting Group and published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, companies reported a dramatic increase in demand for mental health care over the past few years. In response, 94% of companies employing more than 500 people have added mental health benefits – from expanded access to treatment to in-house programs to mental health training. Across corporate America, talking about mental health has become commonplace.

There's only one problem. While destigmatizing mental illness is important, a workplace that is overly focused on mental health is not always a recipe for better mental health outcomes. Recent articles on “talk therapy” and “over-medication” indicate a growing sense that all the talk about mental health may be a bit much. In fact, researchers who study the topic believe that talking about your psychological struggles too much may make your problems worse.

A healthy work environment is one in which people feel supported and encouraged to do meaningful work, rather than one that focuses on their mental health.

Americans are greatly concerned about the mental health crisis. In a 2022 American Psychiatric Association poll of American adults, 79% said they viewed mental health as a public health emergency in the United States. When asked in a KFF poll in December what critical issues 2024 presidential candidates need to discuss, significantly more people said access to mental health care was most important than those who listed immigration, gun violence or abortion. Or the climate crisis is a top issue. problem.

Anxiety is well placed. Gallup found that between 2015 and 2023, the proportion of Americans who said they had been diagnosed with depression rose from about 20% to nearly 30%. In just two decades, the number of Americans receiving mental health treatment has risen from 27 million in 2002 to nearly 56 million in 2022. Half of American doctors in a CVS Health/Harris Poll last year reported that their patients' mental health was declining .

Among younger people, the problem is worse: A 2022 KFF/CNN poll found that adults under 30 were much more likely than those in older age groups to report that they often or always feel depressed or anxious. . In a recent study by the Archbridge Institute's Human Flourishing Lab, where I serve as director, only 64% of Americans ages 18 to 29 said their mental health was good — lower than any other age group, which is a stark contrast to mental health. Nearly 90% of people over 45 said the same.

These trends have important implications for the workplace. Poor mental health reduces labor force participation, work engagement, and job performance, costing the economy an estimated $50 billion in lost productivity each year. And companies are noticing the impact: In a 2023 survey of 152 large American employers, 77% of companies reported an increase in mental health concerns among their employees.

Some psychologists believe that efforts to increase public awareness of mental health problems in the Western world have actually exacerbated the problem.

To address this problem, HR departments have flooded the workplace with resources and programs: everything from online resources to partnerships with health and therapy apps like Calm and BetterHelp to in-house resources like in-office peer support groups, mental health seminars, and dedicated meditation and yoga spaces. Many companies are also facing pressure for cultural change. In a recent study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, three-quarters of workers surveyed said it is appropriate to discuss mental health at work, and even more said supervisors and senior leadership are responsible for helping employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health.

On TikTok, people record their breakdowns while working. Across social media, Generation Z is sharing tips on avoiding toxic workplaces. And on work-based TV shows like “Severance,” “Industry” and “The Bear,” mental health is front and center. Everyone seems to agree that companies need to do something.

Overcoming the stigma associated with mental health is crucial: many people with depression or anxiety do not seek help because they fear it will damage their reputation, social relationships, and career aspirations. In this sense, it is good for workplaces to become supportive environments where colleagues and supervisors view mental health issues humanely.

But there is a limit. Talking too much about mental health can be counterproductive. Take, for example, concept creep—the idea that the meanings of things like abuse, trauma, anxiety, and depression have expanded over time. Over the years, negative emotional experiences that were once considered a normal part of life have come to be viewed as signs of psychological disorders. Trauma, for example, once referred to the extreme psychological distress that comes from rare, life-threatening experiences. Now, it is used to describe less severe distress caused by a wide range of negative events, such as exposure to offensive speech or violent media.

Some psychologists believe that efforts to increase public awareness of mental health problems in the Western world have actually exacerbated the problem, as they have encouraged people to focus on negative psychological experiences and interpret normal levels of emotional discomfort as abnormal. They claim that this misinterpretation can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people begin to think and act as if they actually have a mental disorder, ultimately increasing their risk of developing the disorder.

Well-intentioned efforts to get people thinking and talking more about mental health may inadvertently encourage over-thinking about negative emotions and personal insecurities — known in psychology as rumination — which can exacerbate psychological distress. Research suggests that rumination can make depression and anxiety disorders worse, which is why helping others is a particularly effective way to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression — it takes people's minds off their own problems.

The more people view their lives – and their work – as meaningful, the lower their risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.

So, when employers encourage workers to spend time focusing on their mental states through “emotional check-in” or by including more mental health language in office communications, they may prompt employees to ruminate about their problems — and make them worse. Although workplace leaders can lend a sympathetic ear, most are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists, and thus lack the expertise to properly identify and treat mental illness.

There is also an occupational hazard. Sharing your personal health information with colleagues and supervisors can blur professional boundaries and lead to discrimination due to an altered perception of your competence that may impact your professional advancement. Researchers found that when managers share too much about their psychological struggles, it can undermine the way their employees view them.

In other words, the clinic is not equipped to treat mental health issues, but it can help in other ways.

What Do The most tangible impact on people's well-being at work is whether they find their work meaningful. The more people view their lives – and their work – as meaningful, the lower their risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. When people suffer from mental health problems, the things they find meaningful in life can play an important role in their recovery. At work, finding meaning also improves overall organization. Workers are more likely to report high levels of job satisfaction and lower intentions to leave if they view their work as meaningful.

I have spent two decades of my career as an existential psychologist studying the need for meaning in life. The most important lesson employers can learn is that meaning is about social relevance. People feel more important when they believe they are making important contributions to the lives of others. Research has found that people are more likely to derive meaning from their work when they focus on how it serves the greater good, rather than on how to advance their careers. Other research has found that work becomes more meaningful when workers have a strong sense of autonomy at work and believe that their efforts significantly and positively impact the lives of others.

Prioritizing positive mental health in the workplace is crucial—most of us spend most of our time at work, after all. But the solution, ultimately, is not as simple as raising awareness and promoting open conversations. Instead, employers should ensure their employees have access to mental health care while building a positive culture that promotes meaningful work.

Clay Rutledge He is Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute.


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