TORONTO — Mental health challenges have invaded the workplace, and companies are losing workers over it. And if new findings are true, it’s especially impacting younger people.
A study published Monday in the Harvard Business Review, which was co-authored by Mind Share Partners, SAP and Qualtrics, found one in five respondents, half of millennials (23 to 38 years old) and three-quarters of Generation Z (under 23) had left roles in the past for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
And despite the fact that nearly 60 per cent of respondents said they experienced symptoms of a mental health condition in the past year, less than a third said they felt comfortable talking about these challenges at work.
There are plenty of examples to illustrate why.
When Angela Gregory, a 46-year-old TV producer in Norfolk, Va., spiralled into a tailspin following the loss of her father, she tapped into her vacation days to get by. She had used all of her vacation days in the first two months of the year.
“I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t function. I was deeply depressed,” she explained. “When it hit me, it hit me hard.”
“I just wanted to just get through it, and I wasn’t able to get through it.”
Gregory never revealed what she was going through until her bosses confronted her about it.
“I really bottled it all up and that was a huge mistake on my part,” she said. “I just wanted to just get through it, and I wasn’t able to get through it.”
She said she explained to her managers why she was taking so much time off, and they seemed to understand. But when she went over her annual allotment of sick days, Gregory got reprimanded for it.
“They knew why I missed all the days, they knew I was in counselling,” she said. “I thought I was doing all of the right things at that point.”
Resiliency expert Robyne Hanley-Dafoe, who also works as a senior education developer at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., told HuffPost Canada that despite years of efforts, the stigma around mental health is still very real.
“People are concerned about the repercussions,” she said. The study, which featured responses from 1,500 people aged 16 and older working full-time jobs in the U.S., appears to back that up.
“Oftentimes, individuals managing mental health conditions are associated with negative perceptions and stereotypes such as being irresponsible, incompetent, lazy, or dangerous,” the study said.
Companies have their own business realities to deal with. After all, work doesn’t stop because people don’t feel well. But working too hard, especially when you’re not at your best, can have negative consequences, and Hanley-Dafoe said research shows it actually hinders performance in the long run.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of employees are actually getting burned out in hours that are technically not work hours, but they’re bringing work home with them. They’re not taking breaks. They’re working through their lunch hours.
“And what the research says is working through your lunch hour and not taking breaks might get you the work done in the short term, but long term, the cost is actually greater than what you would have saved with productivity and performance.”
Companies actually stand to benefit more from a workforce that avoids being overworked, according to Hanley-Dafoe.
“When your people are feeling healthy and they’re balanced and they have good support, you’re actually going to get more out of them than when you’re working with people who are working post-40 hours a week.”
So what do people increasingly want from their employers? According to the study, they’re looking for workplaces that prioritize mental health. In fact, young people appear to be leading the charge as advocates on that endeavour.
“They’re more aware and more familiar with what their rights are,” said Hanley-Dafoe. “They are actually coming into the workforce with boundaries.”
These younger generations have seen first-hand what burnout can do. They’ve seen their parents work so hard and get burned out for a retirement that seems more elusive than before. Now, they are advocates for a more balanced life, and they’re putting their own priorities first.
“They’re not working to live, they’re working to feed their lifestyle,” the educator acknowledged. “Do I see drops in resiliency? Absolutely.”
There’s no simple solution to this complicated issue, but there are ways to move forward.
Feeling ‘balanced’ is key
For example, Gregory said many of her co-workers didn’t know they had access to an employee assistance program, the kind that connected her to the grief counsellor she so desperately needed.
“Companies that offer that could do a better job of explaining how it is and what it does and the benefit, other than just saying here’s this thing that you have,” she said.
Hanley-Dafoe said work-life balance may sound like a solution, but there’s no one way to balance everything. Instead, she recommends that people ask themselves this question:
“What’s the right amount of time that match my priorities so I feel balanced?”
And if you think self-care is a luxury you can’t afford, maybe it’s time to rethink what that means.
“Stop calling it self-care; this is self-preservation, and we’re good at it. And that unleashes a part of ourselves that can advocate, that can make our health a priority — when we think about it as self-preservation.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated half of millennials and three-quarters of Generation Z “had voluntarily left roles in the past for mental health reasons.” Mind Share Partners said the wording in the report had been corrected to say these workers left their roles for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily.