For generations, employers approached mental health issues with a “Mind your own business” approach. That has changed over time for a variety of reasons, and the pace of evolution is accelerating. Smart employers are paying attention, and those who adapt to new conditions are likely to reap the benefits of a happier, healthier and more stable work force.

Some of the change in approach has been developing slowly. Major medical insurance started including limited mental health benefits in the 1950s, and in 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act provided that large group health plans cannot impose dollar limits on mental health benefits that are less favorable than any such limits imposed on medical/surgical benefits.

Meanwhile, societal attitudes toward mental health have changed. Mental health concerns in the workplace may have been rooted in stigma and tied to fearful images of workplace violence a few decades ago, but today the younger generations are showing up in the workplace with a more evolved understanding of the importance of mental health as a part of their overall health and well-being.

COVID Impact

This gradual change turned into an avalanche of change with the COVID pandemic. Research tells us that during 2021, the term “how to maintain mental health” was searched online more than ever before. Soon, we will have completed a full two years of the COVID-19 lockdowns, business and school closures and the trauma of illness and death. Nationally, psychiatrists are reporting increased demand for psychiatric services, and at Tri-County Mental Health, we have seen more crisis calls than ever before in our history.

Late in 2021, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an Advisory on “Protecting Youth Mental Health” calling for a “swift and coordinated response” to this rising problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Referring to the mental health crisis, Dr. Murthy pointedly observed that, “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”

Young Workers

Also late in 2021, another study was published, focusing on people in the workforce born after 1997 – Gen Z. The study was based on a survey of 500 Gen Zs throughout the United States. It was discovered that along with fair pay, the other primary area of emphasis was mental health support. Fifty-one percent placed this expectation as one of their most important things they look for in a job—and that preference held true across ages, geography and political affiliation. This is a strong indication of how broadly Zs prioritize (and have de-stigmatized) mental health.

The study also found that:

  • More employees are leaving their jobs for mental health reasons, including those caused by workplace factors like overwhelming and unsustainable work.
  • Mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels. Seventy-six percent of respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, up from 59 percent in 2019.
  • More employees are talking about mental health at work than in 2019. Nearly two-thirds of respondents talked about their mental health to someone at work in the past year. This is an important step in the right direction, especially in terms of reducing stigma, which affects willingness to seek treatment.
  • 48 percent of respondents said they preferred a hybrid work model and 22 percent preferred working mostly in the office. Together, that means that 70 percent of Zs do NOT want to work mostly remotely!

That final bullet point surprises a lot of people, but it makes perfect sense if you look at it from a mental health perspective. Humans are social beings and working together with peers is part of the transition from school to the workplace.

The Surgeon General’s Advice

On page 34 of the Advisory mentioned above, Dr. Murthy makes recommendations and offers resources for employers. His report calls upon employers to:

  • provide affordable health insurance that covers mental health needs for the whole family
  • offer parent-friendly benefits such as family leave and childcare
  • promote work-life balance
  • create a positive culture at work to reduce stress
  • directly ask employees to help create a positive, supportive culture

“I believe that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a country to rebuild in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first, and strengthens our connections to others,” Dr. Murthy states in the report.

What Should Employers Do?

It can be hard for prior generations to understand the mental health expectations of Zs. In decades past, long hours, toxic leadership, harassment, discrimination, and workplace dysfunction were the norm. Fortunately, today, permissive attitudes towards toxic workplace behaviors are rapidly shifting. If companies want Zs in their workforce, they must embrace the cultural shift that is occurring around mental health.

Mental health benefits are an expectation now, and so is time off for young workers to achieve the work/life balance they desire. Younger workers are valuing mental health benefits, and they are refusing to stigmatize those who use them. Clearly, the days of ignoring mental health issues in the workplace are in the past.

The current changes in attitude toward mental health issues are the result of decades of gradual change amplified by a pandemic which has disrupted the workplace. Smart employers are realizing that their employees need more than a water cooler and a cigarette break to remain at their best. Those employers are paying attention to their office culture and listening to their employees. A more attentive management style and a mentally healthy workforce will be hallmarks of successful businesses in the post-COVID world.

For more about mental health and the workplace, stay tuned for this year’s Mental Health KC Conference scheduled for May 12. This day-long conference is always packed full of useful presentations and roundtables, designed to bring mental health awareness and education to Kansas City area businesses and professionals. For more information, visit: