Why Millennials Are Struggling With Mental Health At Work
Americans do not take mental health seriously enough. According to the NIMH, as many as 45% of mental health cases go untreated in this country, at a total potential cost of $147 billion per year.
These statistics are devastating and also not widely known—but they’re not terribly controversial. What is controversial—or at least uncomfortable—is the idea that millennials suffer from more mental health issues than any previous generation. This challenges some of the common assertions that millennials are entitled, lazy and lack a work ethic or respect for the dollar.
Could it be that they’re simply more susceptible to a world in transition? Depression affects millennials in the workplace. Some of what we know about the mental health of millennials is thanks to the fact that we’ve now got five very different generations of Americans mingling together in the labor force. This gives us a convenient—and, frankly, stark—look at how each of these groups of people have dealt with the overlap of mental health and gainful employment.
According to Mashable, millennials report depression in higher numbers than any previous generation, at 20%, or one in five. The runners-up are Baby Boomers and Generation X, with 16% apiece.
But what does this actually mean, in concrete terms? What’s the fallout of a situation where one in five members of an entire generation report depression symptoms? To begin with, let’s dispel the idea that depression is “merely” “feeling sad.” Depression is a recognized and recursive disease, as misunderstood as it is debilitating. And while it can be treated, there is not yet a cure.
Most frequently, depression results in absenteeism—but
there’s another class of symptom that’s a little less obvious and may play an unfortunate role in perpetuating some of the uncharitable generalizations that follow millennials around. Mashable says more than two-thirds of depressed millennials report that, while their symptoms may not be severe enough to keep them home, their capacity for quality work is greatly diminished even if they do manage to shamble into the office. Depression, not malaise Could this not be the “malaise” this generation is so frequently accused of? The pieces seem to fit.
Unfortunately, this describes only half of the vicious cycle that is depression. Based on a survey of 300,000 Americans, we know that 12.4% of unemployed people say they are depressed.
Can you not see it? It’s a self-sustaining cycle. Depression leads to worsening job performance, which leads to unemployment, which leads to further depression.
We could easily get lost in the weeds here, but nothing short of a nationwide consciousness-raising campaign will see mental health taken seriously—seriously to the point of being included as a matter of course in “ordinary” healthcare coverage, which, at this time, is tragically uncommon. It’s simply not thought of as being on the same level as the more physical ailments. Why millennials? For a refreshing—but, alas, still flawed— take on millennials in the workplace, direct yourself to a recent interview with
Simon Sinek, author of 2009’s Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.
In this 15-minute clip, Sinek asserts that there are a few key reasons why millennials are frequently accused of laziness and entitlement—reasons that seem to dovetail perfectly with what we’ve already discussed about depression and its effect on our work. If we can accept that concerns about mental health are becoming more prevalent with each new generation, we owe it to ourselves to approach an understanding of the environmental factors responsible for such a phenomenon.
One of the key factors, according to Sinek, is our cultural fascination with social media and its accessibility via smartphones. This is well-traveled rhetorical ground, but he goes one step further to discuss the chemicals that react in the brain during our relentless exposure to what you’ve almost certainly heard referred to as “everybody
else’s highlight reel.” Obsessing over our friends’ and neighbors’ newsfeeds has a nasty tendency to make us less secure about our own lives and accomplishments.
And we all know about the visceral reaction that accompanies that delightful ping! as we receive a notification on our phones, but it turns out there’s a physical one, as well—a release of the pleasure molecule dopamine, which, if indulged too frequently, very easily results in dependence—and depression. Creating the wrong environments Finally, the icing on the cake is what Sinek describes as, “thrusting millennials into corporate environments that value money but not people.”
By immersing millennials into such an unfeeling culture, we heap expectations on them that don’t really resonate with them on a personal level, not to mention the pressures to “climb the ladder” and take home an ever-larger paycheck. We all know there are more important things than making more money, the most important of which is job satisfaction—millennials value the basic dignity of a flexible work schedule far more highly than they value larger paychecks.
The point is, all of this adds up to a perfect storm for depression. Much of Sinek’s generalizations are reductive and unhelpful—I’ve never met a millennial for whom a lack of “bean bags in the office” was a deal-breaker—but much of what he has to say is valuable food for thought. It’s time to reboot “work culture” Once we establish that depression is a disease with real-world consequences, we need to grapple with the factors that exacerbate it. We need to, at the risk of sounding grandiose or self-important, almost fundamentally rethink the business world we’ve created, and what we want it to look like for future generations. What do we really value? What does social progress actually look like?
To hear some politicians tell it, we ought to continue fetishizing economic growth to the detriment of all else. To hear some parents tell it, young people simply need “a kick in the pants” to jump-start their work ethic. Based on what we’ve learned today, a better first step is to more fully understand depression and other forms of mental health problems—and to ask ourselves honestly whether our lifestyles are part of the problem or in fact the proximate cause of so much of our unhappiness.