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Published on: February 18, 2017
by Kari Paul for Market Watch:
A growing body of research suggests that young workers are increasingly adding mental health days to their personal days, and young women are particularly at risk.
Millennials report higher rates of depression than any other generation and are now the biggest sector of the workforce, creating new challenges in work culture and mental health treatment. And they’re not alone; Recent research shows depression is becoming more prevalent in younger women. Between 2005 and 2014 the number of depressed teens jumped by more than half a million, three-fourths of which were teenage girls according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. These mental health struggles are extending themselves into the workplace, with millennial women far more likely than their male counterparts to experience burn out and depression.
More than 41 million Americans experience some type of mental illness in any given year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. That presents a challenge for people with mental health issues who also work full-time. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on mental health, which includes depression, and prevents companies asking applicants about their mental health. (Jobs such as pilots and air traffic controllers, however, do require more information under industry rules before employing people.)
Despite those protections under the law, not everyone wants to inform their employer about the specific reason for taking time off, but workplace experts say the more information human resources has about your case, the easier it is for the company to help. Hannah, a 24-year-old marketing coordinator at a film company, has struggled with depression and anxiety since she was 17, but working at a 9 to 5 job in the last few years since she finished college has significantly worsened her illnesses. Although she has been in her current role for more than two years, she only recently told her human resources representative about what she was going through.
She struggles with motivation on the job and the depression-related exhaustion she tries to combat by chugging coffee throughout the day, and she regularly has to take days off for her mental health. “There is so much stigma around mental illness it feels like it’s not a valid excuse to not be able to work,” said Hannah, who fears she will be judged by her current and future employers so much that she requested MarketWatch withhold her last name. “It’s funny to think about it but I was out for five full days with no problem because I had strep throat, but when I take one day for depression it feels like I’m cheating the system.”
Luckily, Hannah’s human resources representative was understanding and is allowing her to take time off periodically for mental health purposes — though she still says it’s unlikely she will address the issue with her boss, continuing to say she’s physically ill on mental health days due to fear of being judged. The fear is not unfounded: Her generation is constantly criticized for being lazy, self-entitled, and unable to handle work-life balance — all stigmas that come along with mental illness as well.
Mental health services saw a huge spike in demand the day after the 2016 election, and a study on medical interns (median age 27) from the University of Michigan’s stress and depression research center Sen Lab found the election had “an immediate and striking impact” on their mental health. Many cited fears the president would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and restrict women’s access to reproductive health services as major stressors. The ACA requires insurance plans to cover mental health services.
Today, employees struggle with picking the right health care plan for mental illness and talking with superiors about their issues, often stressing over things like how to ask for a weekly appointment without appearing unmotivated, says Michelle Riba, director at the University of Michigan Depression Center.
Depression in the workplace manifests itself in a number of ways, including absenteeism — skipping out on work completely — and “presenteeism,” a lesser known problem when an employee does show up to work but is not working at full capacity due to underlying mood issues. Often people with untreated mental illnesses are unable to hold a job longer than six months and may lash out at customers or employers.
Depression costs the U.S. economy more than $51 billion a year in absenteeism from work and lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs, according to mental illness nonprofit Mental Health America, but many employees — particularly millennials, are avoiding treatment due to stigma. “The worst part of it is an anxiety around missing work to take care of my mental health, or taking huge gaps out of my day to quell my anxiety,” said Clare, a 25-year-old who works in public relations and who also requested that MarketWatch withhold her last name.
Another problem: How do you tell the difference between a bad day and a mental health day? “I have no real vocabulary around how to express when I’m having a bad mental health day, and so I have a lot of trouble adequately explaining that to my employers,” Clare said. The end result is normally that I end up either at work performing decidedly below average while trying to muscle through or make up some reason to stay home and feel guilty all day, which is obviously so counterproductive to taking a mental health day.”
The political climate may also be contributing to mental health struggles for young people. Clare believes some of the stressors specific to her generation are major reasons for the rise of depression and anxiety. This includes a rising cost of living, more pressure to do well, crippling student debt and even the divisive political climate. “There is a huge pressure for people to find their foothold in their dream careers much earlier — an anxiety to figure it out as fast as possible and find the dream job that meets all the goals,” she said. “Anything less feels like failure.”
There is more awareness of mental health issues, particularly among young people, experts say. This generation is not necessarily more depressed than workers of past generations, but more equipped to recognize it, Riba said. Mental health is increasingly being taught in high school and most universities now have mental health centers, decreasing the stigma of treatment. “We are seeing a whole new generation who is coming up having been more exposed to these issues than in their parents’ generation and want to figure out how they can stay healthy,” she said.
Employers can help by creating a culture at work that is accepting of these health problems, Riba said, not barraging people with emails after hours and learning to recognize signs of depression or anxiety in employees — improving their mental health as well as the company’s bottom line. Some companies are already prioritizing the treatment and prevention of psychological conditions among employees, with many offering free meditation and yoga classes and other wellness services. Consumer goods company UL, +14.00% for example, has a comprehensive mental health initiative that includes training for senior employees to recognize potential problems and employee workshops on sleep, mindfulness and exercise.
“We have found leaders at the top make a major difference in making this a priority,” Riba said. “Access, resources, confidentiality and teamwork are what make these environments improve.”
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