Illustration: Ashley Siebels
A growing body of research is making it clear that older workers and millennial workers approach the office differently.
It’s easy to buy into the standard narratives of “bossy older bosses” and “lazy millennials,” but both are far from true. The way that different generations experience stress is a major factor in motivation and performance. One key thing for millennials and their managers to remember: Humans aren’t robots, and mental health is a big part of how we integrate into our office cultures.
Here are some factors to take into account — and what you can do about them:
1) Millennials are more likely to struggle with depression at work — get them help
Why this is, we don’t know. But millennials reportedly feel the most “down in the dumps” in the office, according to a study released by Employee Assistance Program by Bensinger, DuPont, and Associates in 2015. The company analyzed data gathered from employees who used EAP services from January 2013 – June 2014, and found that 17% of employees termed themselves “depressed.” The term was not based on a diagnosis, but instead how the employees described their own state of mind. BDA added that feelings of depression could include inconsistent appetite, trouble sleeping, feeling useless or guilty, and issues with decision making.
BDA found that 20% of millennials — people born between 1978 and 1999 — reported that they were depressed, compared to 16% each for Gen Xers and Boomers.
The effect of that mental state? Not only did users deal with absenteeism, or missing work, but they also suffered “presenteeism,” or showing up to work and feeling disengaged and uninvolved. While they were in their seats, their minds were elsewhere.
It’s not just Millennials, to be sure: presenteeism was the most common problem at work across generations by far. millennials were at the top of the heap, with 70% having trouble performing, as opposed to 68% of Gen X and 63% of Boomers, as shown in the BDA study.
Absenteeism amounts to more than $23 billion “lost in productivity,” according to Gallup; there’s no estimate on the cost of presenteeism.
2) Give younger workers a sense of purpose
Millennials may be seeking purpose in their careers more than previous generations. “Millennials feel accountable for many issues in both the workplace and the wider world. However, it is primarily in and via the workplace that they feel most able to make an impact. Opportunities to be involved with “good causes” at the local level, many of which are enabled by employers, provide millennials with a greater feeling of influence,” Deloitte said about its 2017 Millennial Survey.
If you’re expecting younger team members to quietly do busywork without a greater sense of mission or giving back, they’re more likely to be unhappy.
While previous generations may have seen changing the world as something you do on your own time, with hobbies or community involvement, younger workers want to use the 8-10 hours a day they spend at work to be useful, too.
If you’re Gen X or a Boomer, think about how you can motivate millennials with larger, more meaningful work, even if it’s on the side.
3) Create a workplace with less hierarchy and more openness
While previous generations may have accepted upheaval and top-down decision-making as just another part of the modern workplace, millennials don’t like office cultures that come with big shocks and opaque, hierarchical demands. Deloitte found that “Millennials, in general, do not support leaders who take divisive positions, or aim for radical transformation rather than gradual change. They are more comfortable with plain, straight-talking language from both business and political leaders; respond to passionate opinions; and identify with leaders who appeal to anyone who might feel ‘left out’ or isolated.”
In other words, while Boomers and Gen Xers may have put up with jerks at work, millennials are less likely to sacrifice their personal dignity for company performance.
Managers of millennials — and managers who are millennials — may want to think about improving their communication styles to take into account the generation’s preference for clear, open, non-hierarchical sharing of ideas. Top-down, command-and-control management is likely to drive away good millennial candidates, if the current research is to be believed. And when planning company changes, think in terms of slow-and-steady rather than radical upheavals.
4) Remember that Millennials cope with stress differently
Where Gen X or Boomers might have had time to establish ways to respond to stress — mainly by talking to friends or family — many millennials are not only younger and less experienced, but they also grew up in a world rife with conflict, terrorism, and, due to greater competition in American schools during their lifetimes, pressure to perform. According an American Psychological Association study on Stress in America, 45% of millennials say they have anxiety related to stress at least once a month.
And how do millennials process that stress? Everyone is different, of course, but there are some broad theories. The APA says millennials are less likely to “get in touch with their inner selves” than other generations who might turn to prayer, books, or confiding in friends. Instead, 44% of the millennials surveyed by the APA said they handle stress by running away from it: playing video games or being active on the Internet.
That technological approach to stress may have deeper roots. Motivational speaker and leadership expert Simon Sinek theorizes that millennials have looser, less connected friend networks. These networks are, in turn, based on short-form communication like text messages, Snapchat and other social media. As a result, millennials may not have deep networks to turn to in times of distress and serious problems. Sinek points out that social media and text messages act like hits of dopamine, prompting a numbing of harsh feelings.
Managers should keep in mind this unique way millennials deal with stress. When millennials appear as if they are frivolously posting status updates or texting friends, they may be actually self-medicating for stress. Give them some space.
5) Learn from them
After all, they’re already learning from the generation younger than them: A whopping 61% of the millennials surveyed by Deloitte said they have high faith in Gen Z — the generation after them — to improve the workplace because younger people grew up to be technologically savvy. Millennials also showed a willingness to give that generation good career advice and provide mentorship. Advice from Millennials to Gen Z included working on their people skills, according to Deloitte’s global study: “perhaps surprisingly, millennials in senior positions rate information technology and social media skills as being of relatively low importance — especially when compared to attributes such as communication, flexibility, leadership, and the ability to think creatively and to generate new ideas.”
What does that mean for generations who are older than millennials? It seems to suggest that it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the strengths of millennials that have not been acknowledged: a tendency to value people and team communication and innovation over pure performance.
Above all, remember that age differences in the workplace are surmountable. Touching base with your younger employees to learn their concerns will pay dividends in their happiness and, most likely, your team’s success.