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We need to stop having 'emotional check-ins' at work

Clay Routledge   

We need to stop having 'emotional check-ins' at work

Gen Z wants to talk about mental health. And these days, they want to talk about it at the office.

In a 2023 survey of nearly 3,000 people, Gen Z was almost twice as likely as other generations to say they struggled with their mental health. And nearly half said they're fine talking about it at work — 20% more than other generations. Anecdotally, managers have said their youngest employees confront anxiety and have no qualms about openly discussing it.

This comfort with vulnerability shouldn't be a surprise. Gen Zers grew up amid a movement to destigmatize mental illness and encourage people to get treatment. They witnessed suicide rates tick up, especially among their peers. They watched celebrities like Selena Gomez, Simone Biles, and Demi Lovato speak out about once taboo subjects such as bipolar disorder, depression, and ADHD. And over the past few years, they've watched rates of depression and anxiety climb through the roof. They've felt increasingly empowered to be open about their struggles, support their coworkers, and lobby management for better benefits.

In a recent survey of US businesses conducted by the consultancy group Mercer and published by the US Chamber of Commerce, companies reported an overwhelming increase in demand for mental-health care over the past few years. In response, 94% of companies employing more than 500 people have added mental-health benefits — from expanded access to therapy to in-office programs for mental-health training. Across corporate America, talking about mental health is all the rage.

There's just one problem. While destigmatizing mental illness is important, a workplace overly focused on mental health isn't always a recipe for better mental-health outcomes. Recent articles about "therapy speak" and being "overtherapized" point to a growing sense that all the mental-health talk might be a bit much. In fact, researchers studying the issue think that talking about your psychological struggles too much can make your problems worse.

A healthy work environment is one where people feel supported and encouraged to do meaningful work — not one that fixates on their mental health.

Americans are overwhelmingly worried about a mental-health crisis. In a 2022 poll of American adults conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 79% said they viewed mental health as a public-health emergency in the US. When asked in a December KFF poll about crucial issues for the 2024 presidential candidates to discuss, far more people said access to mental-health care was most important compared with those who listed immigration, gun violence, abortion, or the climate crisis as the top issue.

The concern is well placed. Gallup found that between 2015 and 2023, the share of Americans who said they had been diagnosed with depression increased from about 20% to almost 30%. In just two decades, the number of Americans who received mental-health treatment shot up from 27 million in 2002 to nearly 56 million in 2022. Half of US physicians in a CVS Health/Harris Poll survey last year reported that their patients' mental health was declining.

Among young people, the problem is worse: A 2022 KFF/CNN survey found that adults under 30 were far more likely than those in older age groups to report that they often or always felt depressed or anxious. In a recent survey from the Archbridge Institute's Human Flourishing Lab, where I serve as the director, only 64% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said their mental health was good — less than any other age group and a stark contrast from the roughly 90% of people over 45 who said the same.

These trends have important implications for the workplace. Poor mental health reduces labor-force participation, work engagement, and job performance, costing the economy an estimated $50 billion in lost productivity each year. And companies are noticing the impact: In a 2023 survey of 152 large American employers, 77% of companies reported an increase in mental-health concerns among their employees.

Some psychologists believe that efforts to increase public awareness of mental-health problems in the Western world have actually made the problem worse.

To address this problem, human-resources departments have flooded the workplace with resources and programs: everything from online resources through partnerships with wellness and therapy apps like Calm and BetterHelp to in-house resources such as office peer support groups, mental-health seminars, and spaces specifically for meditation and yoga. Many companies are also facing a push for cultural change. In a recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, three-quarters of workers polled said it was appropriate to discuss mental health at work, and even more said that supervisors and senior leadership were responsible for helping employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health.

On TikTok, people are recording their on-the-job breakdowns. Across social media, Gen Zers swap tips on avoiding toxic workplaces. And in work-based TV shows like "Severance," "Industry," and "The Bear," mental health is front and center. Everyone seems to agree that companies need to do something.

Breaking through the mental-health stigma is important: Many people struggling with depression or anxiety do not seek help because of their fear that it could harm their reputation, social relationships, and professional aspirations. In that sense, it's a good thing when workplaces become supportive environments where colleagues and supervisors view mental-health issues humanely.

But there's a limit. Too much mental-health talk can be counterproductive. Take concept creep, for example — the idea that the meanings of things like abuse, trauma, anxiety, and depression have expanded over time. Over the years, negative emotional experiences that were once considered a normal part of life have increasingly been viewed as signs of psychological disorders. Trauma, for example, once referred to the severe psychological distress that came from rare, life-threatening experiences. Now, it's used to describe less-severe distress caused by a wider variety of adverse events, such as exposure to offensive speech or violent media.

Some psychologists believe that efforts to increase public awareness of mental-health problems in the Western world have actually made the problem worse — they have encouraged people to fixate on negative psychological experiences and interpret normal levels of emotional discomfort as abnormal. This misinterpretation can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, they argue, whereby people begin to think and behave as if they truly have a mental disorder, ultimately increasing their risk of developing one.

Well-intentioned efforts to get people to think and talk more about mental health may inadvertently promote excessive dwelling on negative emotions and personal insecurities — known in psychology as rumination — which can exacerbate psychological distress. Research indicates that rumination can make depression and anxiety disorders worse, which is why helping other people is an especially effective way to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression — it takes people's minds off their own problems.

The more people view their lives — and work — as meaningful, the lower their risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide is.

So when employers encourage workers to spend time focused on their mental states with "emotional check-ins" or by including more mental-health language in office communications, they may well push staff to ruminate on their problems — and make them worse. And while workplace leaders can lend a sympathetic ear, most are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists and thus lack the expertise required to properly identify and address mental illness.

There's also a professional risk. Sharing your personal health information with colleagues and supervisors can blur professional boundaries and result in discrimination due to an altered perception of your competence that could affect your career advancement. When managers share too much about their psychological struggles, researchers have found, it can undermine how their employees see them.

In other words, the office isn't equipped to treat mental-health issues — but it can help in other ways.

What does have a tangible impact on people's well-being at work is whether they find their work meaningful. The more people view their lives — and work — as meaningful, the lower their risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide is. And when people experience mental-health problems, the things in life they find meaningful can play an important role in their recovery. At work, finding meaning also improves the overall organization. Workers are more likely to report high levels of job satisfaction and low intentions of quitting if they view their work as meaningful.

I've spent two decades of my career as an existential psychologist studying the need for meaning in life. The most important lesson employers can learn is that meaning is about social significance. People feel the most meaningful when they believe that they're making important contributions to the lives of others. Research has found that people are more likely to derive meaning from their work when they focus on how it serves a greater good, rather than how it advances their career. Other research has found that work feels the most meaningful when workers have a strong sense of autonomy at work and believe their efforts significantly and positively influence the lives of others.

Prioritizing positive mental health in the workplace is crucial — most of us spend the majority of our time on the job, after all. But the solution, ultimately, isn't as straightforward as raising awareness and fostering open conversations. Instead, employers should ensure their staff have access to mental-health care while building a positive culture that promotes meaningful work.

Clay Routledge is vice president of research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute.

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