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May 21, 2024

How Gen Z is changing the conversation around mental health at work

The youngest generation of workers understands the link between mental health and productivity, and they’re ushering in a culture of greater openness and support.

Mental health is a growing concern for US workplaces. In a 2021 survey, an estimated 76% of employees reported symptoms of depression or anxiety at work, and that number was increasing steeply. This is a business problem as well as a human one—numerous studies show a connection between poor employee mental health and lost business productivity.

Younger workers are impacted just as much, if not more than, their older colleagues. In fact, Gen Zers self-reported mental health is the poorest of any generation. According to research from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, only 15% of today’s 18-26 year-olds rate their mental health as “excellent,” compared to more than 50% of that age group a decade ago.

But Gen Z has also grown up in a culture that’s much more open and accepting of mental health challenges. They understand the importance of mental health for productivity and creativity, have a clear sense of the support they need, and aren’t afraid to ask for help. And as they enter the workforce in greater numbers, they’re bringing that openness and awareness with them. Our research reveals four things to know about Gen Z’s outlook and impact on mental health at work:

  1. Burnout risk is top of mind. More than 80% of undergrads are concerned about experiencing burnout once they start their careers, and almost 30% of women are highly worried.
  2. Gen Z sees mental health at work as non-negotiable. Almost 9 in 10 undergrads say work-life balance, mental health, and overall well-being are “very important” to them at work.
  3. Gen Z has clear expectations for employers. More than a third of current undergrads say it’s essential that their employer provide mental health coverage as part of their healthcare plan.
  4. Employers are embracing mental health support as a selling point. The share of job descriptions on Handshake that mention mental health more than tripled between January 2020 and April 2024.

Burnout risk is top of mind for Gen Z

Today’s undergrads recognize the potential for burnout in their careers, and they want to take proactive steps to prevent it. The vast majority are at least somewhat worried about experiencing burnout, and these concerns are significantly more common among women, with almost 3 in 10 women saying they’re “highly worried.” Although there are many possible explanations for this gender gap, it’s likely that the high rate of burnout experienced by professional women during COVID-19—which this generation witnessed during their formative early-college years—plays an important role.

"Work can be hard no matter how much you love your job. I think it's important that when someone feels burnt out, they’re not judged for it."

—Class of 2026 student

"I am going into a field with a high burnout rate, so I want all the support I can get, for myself and to help me understand how to help others."

Class of 2025 student

"I do not experience burnout in school, but I do worry about it once I am in the workforce. The workforce culture today tends to stress longer hours and less free time, which I think is essential to mental health."

—Class of 2025 student

Gen Z sees mental health at work as non-negotiable

Almost 9 in 10 undergrads say work-life balance, mental health, and overall well-being are “very important” to them at work. Mental health and work-life balance rank higher than collaboration opportunities, training and mentorship, and even recognition and advancement. But this doesn’t mean Gen Z is prioritizing mental health above success and productivity. Rather, our qualitative findings suggest they see a balanced and healthy workplace as a critical foundation for doing their best work and taking advantage of professional opportunities.

"I want to be proud of my work and I can't perform to the best of my ability without taking care of myself. I especially want to know my company values me—if they dedicate resources to me, I will return the favor."

—Class of 2026 student

"As a psychology major going into business, I know there is a big connection between wellbeing and employee production, morale, quality of work, etc. Everybody benefits from mental health services, including the business and its customers."

—Class of 2025 student

"I believe making your job your whole life will ruin your productivity levels over time. Taking breaks and having access to resources leads to higher-quality work."

—Class of 2025 student

"Mental health is a huge contributing factor to productivity. When an employee’s personal health and wellness is taken care of, it will be reflected in their work."

—Class of 2025 student

Gen Z has clear expectations for employer-provided mental health support

More than a third of current undergrads say it’s essential that their employer provide mental health coverage, including coverage for therapy and mental health medication, as part of their healthcare plan. Mental health coverage is especially important to women—understandably, given their increased concerns about burnout—and also matters more to students of color, particularly Black and Hispanic/Latine students.

"My university has mental health resources that I've found very helpful. I wouldn't want to give that type of support up once I graduate and enter the workforce, especially if my salary isn’t enough to pay for these services myself."

—Class of 2025 student

One company going above and beyond in this area is Global Atlantic, which made the decision in 2021 to waive employee cost-sharing for mental health services under its healthcare plans. “We wanted to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health care, as well as the financial barriers,” says Shellie Peters, Vice President of Benefits at Global Atlantic. “Although it meant taking on higher costs, our leadership was all-in on anything that would keep our employees safe and healthy. We saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate that we care about employee mental health and believe everyone should feel empowered to get the care they need.” Global Atlantic has since received the Platinum Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health from Mental Health America, a certification that recognizes employers for workplace policies and practices that influence worker mental health outcomes.

Other employers are turning to specialized providers to level up their mental health coverage. For example, AT&T recently partnered with Lyra Health to give employees and their families access to services like no-cost mental health coaching and counseling. The partnership allows employees to meet with high quality mental health providers virtually or in-person.

In addition to offering mental health coverage as part of a standard healthcare plan, Gen Z believes employers should provide a variety of wraparound support services, with the most important being work-life balance resources (e.g. training to help with time management and achieving a healthy work-life balance). Global Atlantic is meeting this need with a series of virtual employee info sessions focused on topics like sleep and nutrition, alongside content related to giving and receiving feedback, suicide prevention, and more.

"I don't expect to use all of these benefits, but working with a company that offers more benefits makes me feel like they care and would be there for me if I ever find myself in a situation where I do need more support."

—Class of 2025 student

Employers are increasingly highlighting mental health resources

Research shows more than 7 in 10 Gen Zers appreciate it when brands incorporate mental health into their marketing and messaging, and companies are increasingly recognizing that that preference applies to employer branding, too.

The share of job descriptions on Handshake that mention mental health has ticked up steadily over the past four years, from about 1.5% in January 2020 to almost 4% in April 2024. This increased emphasis has been especially notable in certain industries—for example, about 2% of financial services job descriptions now mention mental health, compared to less than 0.1% four years ago. Government employers, which have seen rising interest from Gen Z, also stand out for being among the most likely to nod to mental health in their job postings.

This messaging can have a big impact. A recent Handshake Network Trends survey found that 72% of Class of 2024 students were more likely to apply to a job if the employer has a reputation for treating employees well and fostering a positive work culture—compared to only 28% who were more likely to apply if they were familiar with a company’s consumer brand. And job descriptions are just one of many ways to highlight commitment to mental health. Seventy-five percent of students said they read reviews of employers before applying to jobs, and 73% said they’re more likely to apply after seeing positive behind-the-scenes content from an employer on social media or similar channels.


Gen Z sentiment data is based on surveys of students on the Handshake platform conducted between July and December 2023. Each survey was completed by at least 2,500 students enrolled in four-year degree programs, representing at least 400 different US higher education institutions.

Job description keyword trends are based on an analysis of full-time jobs posted on the Handshake platform between January 5, 2020 and April 24, 2024. Job roles directly related to mental health, including therapists, counselors, and social workers, were excluded from this analysis.

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