Workplace Wellbeing

Understanding Gen Z in the Workplace: Key Characteristics and Challenges

Understanding Gen Z and their workplace traits can empower leaders to effectively connect with a generation navigating profound uncertainty, anxiety, and stress.

Written by
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Dave Fisse
Clinically reviewed by
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One Gen Z woman in a black hat working with another Gen Z woman at a table

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    Just as you’ve mastered understanding Millennials, the newest generation of employees, Gen Z, has arrived. 

    Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z ranges from 12 and 27 years old. They represent over 25% of the U.S. population and are poised to become the largest generation globally. 

    What’s particularly fascinating is how Gen Z quietly shapes the future landscape of workplace culture and work methods. In this dynamic business environment, HR and People leaders must adapt to evolving consumer needs and the shifting demographics of our future workforce.

    Investing time and effort into understanding Gen Z’s characteristics, traits, and values in the workplace will yield significant benefits for proactive leaders. This comprehension enables the crafting of informed strategies that engage a generation wrestling with considerable uncertainty, workplace anxiety, and stress.

    In this article, we’ll explore how growing up in an “always on” tech environment influences Gen Z, their approach to navigating uncertainty and mental health challenges, and their competitive advantages and disadvantages. We’ll also explore the importance Gen Z places on diversity and inclusion. 

    Additionally, we’ll discuss the HR challenges associated with this generation. By understanding and addressing these factors, businesses can effectively engage and support their Gen Z employees. 

    Growing up in an “always on” tech environment

    Gen Z—raised on the internet, smartphones, and social media—has only experienced a world of perpetual connectivity.

    Pew Research eloquently illustrates the experience of growing up in this “always on” era: “The iPhone launched in 2007 when the oldest Gen Zers were 10. By the time they were in their teens, the primary means by which young Americans connected with the web was through mobile devices, WiFi, and high-bandwidth cellular service.”

    For Gen Zers born post-1996, social media, constant connectivity, and on-demand entertainment and communication are simply part of their everyday reality. 

    Research studies indicate that Gen Z spends roughly half of their waking hours immersed in screen time. According to market research shared exclusively with The Times, “This cohort of consumers, born in and after 1996, watches an average of 7.2 hours of video a day, which is nearly an hour more than the 6.3 hours spent by Gen X.” 

    Given the significant portion of their time and attention devoted to screens, concerns naturally arise regarding the potential impact of reduced in-person interactions and increased isolation on Gen Z’s well-being.

    Gen Z’s response to stressors in the workplace 

    The newest generation of young adults entering the U.S. workforce faces an unprecedented wave of real-world stressors that significantly impact their mental well-being. These include:

    • The prolonged isolation mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic
    • The threat of gun violence in the classroom
    • Higher levels of personal debt accrued in college loans
    • Economic instability and the looming threat of recession

    These stressors contribute to why America’s young adults are more likely than any other generation to report poor mental health.

    For Gen Z, the timing is particularly challenging. Many graduated college and entered the workforce just as the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Many live with their parents, driven by economic circumstances—54% cite the current economic climate as the reason for this arrangement.

    Furthermore, many Gen Zers face the daunting prospect of postponing important financial and personal milestones due to financial constraints. These milestones include completing college, getting married, owning a car or home, and starting a family.

    Mental health challenges among Gen Z employees

    According to a series of consumer surveys and interviews conducted by McKinsey, Gen Zers report the least positive life outlook and lower levels of emotional and social well-being compared to older generations. 

    Across different age ranges within Gen Z, there is a notable increase in rates of anxiety, depression, and overall distress compared to other age groups. 

    A survey by The American Psychological Association uncovered concerning statistics: 

    • 90% of Gen Z experienced psychological or physical symptoms due to stress in the past year.
    • 70% of Gen Z identify anxiety and depression as significant issues among their peers.

    Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, based on responses from over 23,000 Gen Zers across 46 countries, revealed that despite increased awareness and messaging around mental health in the workplace, a significant number of Gen Z individuals still feel uncomfortable discussing mental health challenges or utilizing available support. Stigma surrounding mental health still remains a persistent obstacle for this generation.

    3 characteristics of Gen Z in the workplace 

    Competitive advantages and disadvantages

    Although Gen Z is highly adept at navigating the latest technological advancements, they find face-to-face interactions less comfortable than previous generations. Furthermore, phone conversations could also be unfamiliar territory for them, considering their preference for communication through text messages, Snapchat, or TikTok. 

    Sources of anxiety and stress

    This generation has faced significant challenges, from the prevalence of mass school shootings and increased instances of sexual harassment to heightened isolation exacerbated by reliance on social media and the prolonged global pandemic.

    During such unsettling times marked by numerous stressors, uncertainties, and prolonged periods of solitude, individuals may experience heightened levels of anxiety and depression

    It’s essential for People leaders to be vigilant in recognizing the signs of both anxiety and depression and to understand how to initiate and conduct confidential peer-to-peer conversations. The key elements include approaching employees who may be struggling privately and leading with empathy. 

    Regularly addressing mental health challenges in the workplace can help destigmatize these discussions and establish a supportive environment where employees feel safe to open up.

    Diversity and inclusion

    Gen Z represents the most diverse generation in the nation’s history, with diversity and inclusion encompassing multiple dimensions beyond just race and gender to include identity and orientation.

    Organizations stand to gain tangible benefits from embracing diversity in their workforces. These advantages include heightened innovation, improved performance, greater customer satisfaction, and enhanced profitability.

    Adapting practices to meet Gen Z expectations

    Gen Z’s perspective on the demands of a typical work environment and their approach to career advancement, such as climbing the traditional corporate ladder, differs significantly from that of Millennials, influenced by their distinct life experiences.

    For instance, Gen Zers in their mid-twenties have had much of their professional lives shaped by the global pandemic, which necessitated long periods of self-isolation. Given the profound impact of such an event, HR leaders need to consider how to assess a new employee’s comfort level with the prospect of working in an intimate office setting five days a week.

    This scenario highlights one of the challenges HR leaders will face as they welcome the newest—and soon-to-be largest—generation of young professionals into their workplace.

    Building support systems for Gen Z’s success

    Gen Z embodies the future wave of business leaders, shaping tomorrow’s companies with their unique values. We must establish robust support systems for current and future Gen Z employees, ensuring each individual can realize their full potential.

    As mental health challenges continue to affect young adults entering the workforce, HR and People leaders face new hurdles. However, the early recognition of these challenges offers an opportunity for proactive measures. Business leaders can effectively navigate these challenges by developing HR planning and training models that align with Gen Z’s expectations of peer support and workplace well-being.

    Achieving success hinges on embracing an evolution in how we approach work. This transformation entails fostering a workplace culture that dismantles the stigmas surrounding mental health. By prioritizing flexibility, communication, empathy, and understanding, we can cultivate an environment that fosters positive outcomes for our Gen Z employees.

    Leverage your new understanding of Gen Z characteristics to successfully attract, engage, and support them. 

    About the Author
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    Dave Fisse

    A proud Pacific Northwest native, Dave lives in Los Angeles where the abundance of sunshine fuels his creativity. The University of Oregon School of Journalism provided the foundation for his 15-year career as a copywriter and storyteller. Dave is passionate about advocating for men's mental health, spending quality time with his wife and three-year-old, and watching Oregon Ducks football in the Fall.

    About the clinical reviewer
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