Hardest hit by mental health issues during the COVID-19 lockdown, Generation Z has struggled like no other group throughout this pandemic. With experts anticipating the mental health aftermath to likely last for a decade post-pandemic, employers must negotiate a strategy that meets the behavioral needs of Gen Z’s up-and-coming workforce.
Born between 1997 and 2012, Generation Z is the newest addition to the workforce. Each generation develops unique characteristics that behoove employers to understand. For instance, the silent generation prided itself on respecting hierarchy, where the millennials prefer open and boundaryless communication. Gen Z, struggling to bring its special voice to the workforce, has met an unprecedented challenge in finding its place.
Thriving on smart tech platforms and apps, Gen Zers arrange, organize and schedule their lives online. Yet, they are much more than technological junkies. Gen Z is a realistic, individualistic, social, technological and ethical group that seeks authenticity through understanding, sharing and expressing truth in all situations.
Compared with previous generations, Gen Zers are more likely to complete high school and go to college. As a 2020 study found, 57% of the Gen Z population was enrolled in college in 2018, placing them on track to become the best-educated generation yet. They are also the most diverse generation, consisting of 52% non-Hispanic whites, and they prefer to work for employers who hire people of different ethnicities, races and cultures. Radically inclusive, individualized and tolerant, they respect same-sex marriage and non-binary gender views and feel a strong purpose in improving themselves as human beings and workers.
Equipped with technological devices their entire lives, Gen Z is the first generation to grow up watching the world’s current events unfold in real-time, right from the palm of the hand. Bearing witness to online footage and conversations surrounding the nation’s most important and devastating issues–the 2008 economic collapse, increasing political discord, mounting social injustice, and tragic environmental destruction–shaped their proclivities and, consequently, subverted their desire to accept the status quo. In keeping with the insecurity these troubling events invoke, Gen Z is already a characteristically anxious group. A 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll found that Gen Z feels considerably stressed by the current trends of social disruption: 75% regarding mass shootings, 57% concerning immigrant and migrant family separation and deportation and 53% about sexual harassment and assault reports.
Perhaps being privy to such turmoil throughout their lives is what causes Gen Z to seek a safe, positive workplace that includes the diversity, inclusivity, security and equity absent from the current events they witnessed. A company that cares about their future by offering 401(k)s, health insurance and long-term financial security describes only part of what they’re looking for. Disinclined to have labels placed on them, Gen Z is more content to be a fluctuating force, seeking job opportunities that provide continuous learning, skill development and a work-life balance. Moreover, Gen Z does not adhere to traditional frameworks and craves involvement and face-to-face communication, not only wanting their ideas heard but also to be a full-fledged member of a company that appreciates and incorporates their contributions.
Influential, determined and self-possessed, Gen Zers entering their professional lives appeared ready to take the job market by storm. Yet, when the nation locked down in March 2020, Gen Z watched, practically overnight, as the pandemic upended their lives and truncated their professional opportunities, with 84% witnessing their internships and careers sour, stagnate or spoil amid a declining workforce. At a time of year when a few million college graduates prepare to enter the workforce, Glassdoor.com revealed a 68% decrease in the availability of entry-level jobs, resulting in many Gen Zers searching for gig work. A June/July 2020 Upwork survey reported a 36% increase in Gen Zers taking freelancing positions, and just a few months later, the Brookings Institution reported a 40% increase in permanent unemployment.
Still, others who did find work began their careers interviewing, onboarding and training remotely from makeshift offices set up in bedrooms, kitchens and family rooms. Such inferior circumstances reduced opportunities for training, mentoring and shadowing seasoned employees, leaving Gen Zers feeling disengaged and unproductive. Their technical prowess made Gen Zers seem well-prepared to slide right into the work-from-home model. However, for a generation that appreciates face-to-face exchanges, daily progress appraisals and contributing to the big picture, this has not been the case. A summer 2020 report found them struggling more than any other generation on several fronts: 45% reported decreased work hours, 37% were forced to file for unemployment and 25% believed they would be in a worse situation post-COVID. Furthermore, an August 2020 article reports two-thirds of Gen Zers were concerned over job prospects, over three-quarters felt anxious about financial stability and over one-third felt isolated within the work-from-home model, contending that working remotely has disrupted their work/life balance.
Nearly a year after the lockdown began, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ January 2021 report shows the pandemic’s impact on the national unemployment rate. After a healthy, historically low U.S. unemployment rate of 3.5% in February 2020, the current rate stands at 6.2% as of February 2021. The Standard reports 71% of Gen Z workers have suffered mental health issues during the pandemic due to compounding stress already experienced regarding lack of job security, housing stability, higher debt and lower-wage earnings than other generations. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) stress survey for 2020 reports the intense effects the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on Generation Z’s mental health: 63% feel lonely, 50% report the pandemic severely disrupted their future plans and 51% report that they feel it impossible to plan their future during the pandemic. A recent study reveals the fallout from remote working: 48% of Gen Zers are bored with work, 39% complain of a short attention span and 33% aren’t sleeping well, all signs of what could be larger mental health issues.
As we emerge from COVID-19’s constraints and companies reopen offices, businesses need to pay attention to rectifying the emotional damage committed on Gen Z’s burgeoning workforce. While proof of vaccination and daily temperature scans are expected, other changes to the post-COVID office design will likely include physical changes to the floorplan, one-way thoroughfares, well-stocked hygiene stations, improved filtration systems as well as naturally lit, open workspaces and fresh-air patios that allow for social distancing. In addition, the pandemic has made it necessary to reimagine the long-established work model of commuting 9 to 5, five days a week. Companies would be wise to begin implementing changes to this traditional workday paradigm that includes permanent, ongoing mental health strategies. When this pandemic is over, mental health experts warn that the ramifications will linger for a decade to come. Therefore, health initiatives such as the following will be key to bolstering Gen Z employees in particular and helping them to be successful in the post-COVID workspace.
- Develop or increase the presence of Employee Assistance Programs to assist employees with ongoing mental health initiatives
- Provide opportunities for mentoring and reverse mentoring to hasten Gen Zers inclusion in the company culture
- Commit to diversity and radical inclusivity in all company-wide initiatives
- Increase communication to help employees stay organized, on track and productive
- Ensure employees have the tools they need to perform at their best, including a desk, chair and monitor, at work and home
- Create a strong team culture online and off-site that includes games, challenges, activities and volunteer opportunities
- Incorporate a hybrid work model for onboarding, training and career support and opportunities that include in-office, work-from-home and offsite work possibilities
- Institute a flexible work-life balance model
- Increase reliance on remote technology and digital tools to allow for off-site file sharing, collaboration and training work days
- Schedule in-office time that allows face-to-face engagement, collaboration, brainstorming, casual conversation and team building
Generation Z’s young adults have entered the professional world at the most disruptive time in recent history. Emboldening them to reach and exceed their potential will require the concerted effort of businesses to restructure a work model that incorporates mental health initiatives, technological innovation, versatility, inclusion and team bonding.
Ascellus bridges the gap between mental and physical health to accelerate recovery for our nation's workforce. By connecting the workers' compensation industry with our expert behavioral care and evidence-based treatments, we deliver high-quality outcomes, helping injured workers reemerge with increased strength, purpose and resilience in the workplace.