Editor's Note: We recently updated this previously published post with new insights. Enjoy!
The generational makeup of the workforce is changing rapidly: for the first time in history, four generations of employees are represented in the workplace. Millennials have surpassed both boomers and Gen X to make up the largest portion (40%), while the first wave of Generation Zers, composed of people in their early 20s, are just entering the workforce.
Even as millennials dominate the modern workplace, employees are living and working longer. This means more than five decades can separate your youngest employees from your oldest. Considering the pace of cultural change over the last 50 years, that spread can account for vastly different perspectives, attitudes, and motivations. How will this impact employers?
We recently analyzed data from more than 12,000 users of the WellRight corporate wellness platform to examine—from a wellness perspective—the differences between the major generational groups in the workforce today.
We found that just as every employee has their own work style, every generation has its own general set of workforce needs, motivations, challenges, and goals, making implementing an employee wellness program a challenge.
As employers account for multigenerational diversity in their wellness program, they must consider these five factors.
1. Physical Health
Due to chronic diseases and absenteeism:
income lost annually
When thinking of health and well-being, most people immediately think of physical health, and it’s often the type of health that has the most easily traced effect on healthcare costs. Employees with chronic health conditions can result in a serious drain on both the employee and the employer. One study of full-time US workers found that employers lose 28.2 million workdays and employees lose $4.95 billion in income annually due to chronic diseases and absenteeism.
And it’s not just the older generation who’s suffering.
As baby boomers age, health insurance becomes one of their most valuable benefits. Employers whose employees’ ages skew older may find they’re paying more in sick pay, workers’ comp costs, and insurance benefit payouts. Our study found chronic pain and obesity are the two biggest health risks for the baby boomer generation.
Compared to baby boomers, Gen Xers are twice as likely to be obese or be diagnosed with diabetes between ages 25-44, compared with Baby Boomers at that age. On average, Gen Xers in our study were out of range for three out of these five biomarkers: cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, glucose, and BMI.
Millennials are trending to be less active and more obese than all earlier generations. Obesity in young adults has tripled since 1970, and millennials are reporting both a decline in physical activity and increased levels of infectious diseases.
While still early in their careers, we found that many Gen Zers have not had a wellness visit in five years or more, meaning they may not have a good understanding of their baseline physical health metrics.
How Wellness Programs Can Help
Good health requires movement—something the office environment doesn’t always encourage. Wellness programs can combat rising healthcare expenses and help get employees moving by offering a range of physical activities, from the use of an employee gym to lunchtime exercise classes.
While unhealthy behaviors might be visible, chronic conditions aren’t. Regular biometric health screenings help identify invisible health risks like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol, helping to prevent chronic conditions from escalating—or even developing in the first place.
2. Financial Health
Money. It seems like we can never have too much of it—and we frequently feel we have to work too hard for it. Paychecks seem to slip through our fingers, going toward expensive mortgages, much-needed retirement accounts, looming college tuition expenses, and costly medical bills. While all generations share some of the same concerns, they each face unique financial goals and needs.
This generation needs to plan for long-term care costs, manage their investments for cash flow after retirement, and begin prioritizing retirement savings over helping family members with college and other expenses. That said, many baby boomers are pushing retirement later, or even starting up new careers after discovering the retired lifestyle just isn’t for them (taking on so-called “returnships”).
Gen Xers are struggling with paying down existing debts and establishing emergency funds. Now that they’re standing on their own two feet, it’s time for them to arrange sufficient insurance and estate planning protection. They also find themselves struggling to balance saving for their children’s college education and saving for retirement.
While millennials have more time to start preparing for retirement, they’re concerned about where that money will come from: 60% believe Social Security will be bankrupt by the time they retire and few employers today offer a pension plan. Millennials are also frequently saddled with expensive college loans and the financial burden of starting out on their own. All this proves to be a significant challenge for a generation with minimal money management skills.
Gen Z may have come of age during the Great Recession, but they’re already in a better financial position than millennials thanks to their aversion to taking out massive student loans. This generation highly values on-the-job training and expects to continue learning as they go.
How Wellness Programs Can Help
Help employees of all ages improve their financial health by offering one-on-one financial planning sessions with an advisor or providing a financial helpline for employees to call with specific questions. Employers might also host lunch-and-learns on topics of general interest, like retirement saving strategies and healthcare spending accounts.
3. Occupational Health
Employees who feel overworked, undervalued, and anxious about job security are bound to experience stress from their job. And that stress is one of the most significant contributors to employee burnout, which can quickly creep from an employee’s work-life to their personal one. How and why that stress arises, though, can vary depending on generational factors.
Baby Boomers tend to spend long hours at the office—even working nights and weekends to tackle their responsibilities. Their commitment to career and company means they persevere through challenging situations, but this dedication often comes at the expense of personal relationships and a feeling of hopelessness at not being able to accomplish all that’s expected.
With a dedication to their career rather than their workplace, Gen Xers are learning from the occupational mistakes of the work-centric baby boomers. This generation instead values the separation of work and personal life and feels at liberty to change jobs to fulfill their desire for variety. Because job security is no longer guaranteed, they try to learn as many skills as they can in one job before moving to another.
Commitment to family, friends, and community service means millennials are looking to make an impact and effect change through their work—but on their own flexible schedule. Surprisingly, younger employees tend to experience higher levels of burnout than their older colleagues, perhaps due in part to the “reality check” of entering the workforce and unfamiliarity with navigating workplace issues. Stress also arises from the reduced job security and increased layoff risk in today’s business environment. Even those enjoying flexible work schedules as part of the gig economy aren’t immune to job-related anxiety, as millennials wonder where their next job is coming from.
No more burnout?Generation Z refuses to let their job break them down: 75% of Gen Zers say they have left a job due to mental health reasons.
Unfortunately, millennials aren’t the only ones who are suffering from burnout: 75% of Gen Zers say they have left a job due to mental health reasons, according to a study from Mind Share Partners, Qualtrics and SAP. But they are also learning to set boundaries and value work environments where they can have autonomy and flexibility.
How Wellness Programs Can Help
Because employees spend so much of their time at work, employers must foster an environment that prevents burnout, promotes employee development, and encourages retention. Offer employees the opportunity to recharge—in designated quiet areas, through instructor-led meditation sessions, or through complimentary lunchtime massages. Give every employee the opportunity to learn new skills, whether via computer-based training, seminars, or even shadowing employees in other positions.
4. Nutritional Health
To have a roaring fire, you need to feed it with the right fuel. For peak performance, employees need to feed their body with the right food. The problem is, they don’t always know what that is, or how to fit healthy choices into their busy lives. What each generation has learned about nutrition can have a dramatic effect on their wellness.
This older generation may have been raised on “meat and potatoes” meals at home, but their taste and dietary preferences are changing in recent years. Baby boomers are also more likely to trust healthcare professionals for information on healthy food to eat, compared to other generations.
Not only are Gen Xers more likely to cook at home than eat out, but the men of this generation are also more involved in cooking meals than their baby boomer counterparts. While they tend to have little understanding of the impact of genetically modified food, they’re more conscious about selecting and using organic ingredients.
Although millennials prefer to seek out specialty shops and local farmer’s markets when they do their grocery shopping, they’re also the most likely to eat out at restaurants. They’re the generation that spends the highest percentage of their budgets on prepared and convenience foods, which means they’re not always making the healthiest choices.
Gen Zers are generally more educated on the benefits of fresh, whole, plant-based foods vs. processed foods. They are far more likely to try a vegetarian or vegan diet, both for the health benefits as well as the environmental and ethical impacts. They are used to having instant access to their favorite foods or restaurants at the touch of a button, so convenience is also a huge factor for them.
How Wellness Programs Can Help
When the body is well-nourished, it runs more efficiently and is better prepared to fight disease and slow the aging process. That means energy and focus increase, mood improves, and people just feel better. Help employees make good choices by offering healthy alternatives in cafeterias and vending machines, hosting in-house cooking classes, or arranging for a trip to the local farmers market.
5. Mental Health
When it comes to mental health, only 45% of Gen Z Americans report experiencing good mental health as compared with millennials at 56%, Gen X at 51%, and baby boomers at 70%. There are other common fears that each generation experiences that, if not addressed, may lead to a decline in productivity, job satisfaction, and retention.
As baby boomers try to stay connected to the workplace and add value, they can feel they’re being displaced by the younger generation and losing touch with evolving technology. For job-focused baby boomers who link their work to their identity, this fear of irrelevance can lead to feelings of genuine loss, anxiety, and possibly even depression.
As Gen Xers grow into leadership roles in their organizations, increased job pressures combined with the task of balancing complex family life (raising children while caring for aging parents) can leave them feeling like they’re being pulled in multiple directions. With so many demands on their time and energy, Gen Xers can easily find themselves wondering if their efforts will ever be good enough, which can quickly trigger mental health issues. Our study found that depression was one of the greatest health risks facing Gen Xers.
Many millennials suffer from being perfectionists, resulting in emotional turmoil when they’re unable to achieve the lofty goals and maintain the high standards they set for themselves. Always-connected millennials can also experience emotional exhaustion from the constant social media bombardment of news and current events.
Our study found that Generation Z has a significantly high risk for anxiety—56% higher than the next closest group. They were also at the highest risk of insomnia, which was confirmed by a survey done by the American Psychological Association (APA) reporting that 68% of Gen Zers commonly lay awake at night due to stress.
How Wellness Programs Can Help
Consider offering opportunities to gather and talk about common challenges, or even launch a phone-in assistance program. Fostering an atmosphere of open communication and teamwork can also help promote emotional well-being throughout the workforce, as can offering understanding and support when an employee is experiencing mental health issues.
Designing a Multigenerational Wellness Program
Wellness is no longer narrowly defined as just physical health; it now includes dimensions like emotional, social, occupational, and financial health. That’s why the most successful wellness programs are those with a variety of inclusive activities and goals that engage each employee.
By accommodating individual needs and preferences and helping employees of all ages develop healthy habits, employers gain happier and healthier employees, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and improve productivity.
When you’re ready to develop an employee wellness program that employees of all ages and fitness levels will appreciate and use, download our whitepaper, “Adapting Your Wellness Program to Today’s Multigenerational Workforce.” We’ll show you how multigenerational wellness programs can boost employee engagement, morale, and productivity, and therefore, company profitability.