Millennial and Gen Z Workers Are Struggling Most During the Pandemic

New study confirms the pandemic's effect on mental health and substance use in younger workers

PORTLAND, Ore. — One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study shows younger workers (ages 18 – 40) are struggling the most with mental health and substance abuse. Fifty-nine percent of Millennials and 71% of Gen Z workers now report mental health issues as compared to 22% of Boomers and 35% of Gen Xers. Serious mental illness jumped from 10% to 16% of Millennials since the pandemic began, compared to a 3% increase in Gen X workers and a 1% increase in Boomers. The latest data comes in an effort to understand the state of workplace behavioral health since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Standard and Versta Research conducted the 2020 Behavioral Health Impact Update to complement the original 2019 Behavioral Health Impact Study, released prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

Data from the 2020 study shows Millennial and Gen Z workers are more likely to miss work for mental health treatment, and many avoid treatment because of work concerns. While half of workers overall report problem use of alcohol, drugs or prescription medication over the past year, Gen Z in particular struggles with addiction or substance abuse affecting their work.

“Millennials and Gen Z have helped change the conversation around mental health, and it’s time to meet them where they are,” says Melissa Oliver-Janiak, senior director of Benefits and HR Service Center at The Standard. “Employers must break down old stigmas and provide employees with easily accessible support to improve physical and mental health.”

According to the study, younger workers, especially Gen Z, were found to be the least knowledgeable about work resources and benefits they can turn to for help. Offering comprehensive employee benefits options that directly address mental health and substance abuse issues, and regularly communicating those benefits are ways employers can create supportive workplaces that promote behavioral health.

The Standard’s Workplace PossibilitiesSM Program offers a proactive, whole-person approach to behavioral health and disability management through customized solutions that help employees stay at work and return to work sooner. Recent success rates show 92% of employees who participated in the Workplace PossibilitiesSM program successfully stayed at work, thus helping employers potentially avoid more than $15 million in direct claim costs and 125,000 lost workdays.1

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The Standard’s 2020 Behavioral Health Impact Update

The 2020 Behavioral Health Pandemic Impact Study was conducted by Versta Research on behalf of The Standard. One thousand, four hundred and twenty-five full-time employees in the U.S. were surveyed about mental and behavioral health issues in the workplace. The survey measured changes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, with an initial survey of 2,004 employees having been conducted from September to October 2019. All respondents were between the ages of 18 to 69, employed full-time, aware of employer-sponsored disability benefits, whether or not their employer offered those benefits and whether they participated in them. All industries and economic sectors except federal government employees were included. Final data was weighted to bring oversampled industries back down to their proper proportions and to ensure comparability to 2019 data.

In the overall total of respondents, mental health was measured using the Kessler K6 scale with cut-off criteria recommended by Judith J. Prochaska, Hai-Yen Sung, Wendy Max, Yanling Shi and Michael Ong in Validity Study of the K6 Scale as a Measure of Moderate Mental Distress Based on Mental Health Treatment Need and Utilization published in the International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, June 2012, Volume 21(2): 88–97. Addiction and substance abuse were measured using three items from the TAPS-1 quick-screen tool from the National Institute on Drug Use, to assess frequency of problem use of alcohol, prescription medication and illicit substances. Problem use of substances was not measured in 2019, so comparisons are not available.

About The Standard

The Standard is a family of companies dedicated to helping customers achieve financial well-being and peace of mind. In business since 1906, we are a leading provider of financial protection products and services for employers and individuals. Our products include group and individual disability insurance, group life, dental and vision insurance, voluntary (employee-paid) benefits, absence management services, and retirement plans and annuities for employers and individuals. For more information about The Standard, visit or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

The Standard is the marketing name for StanCorp Financial Group, Inc., and its subsidiaries: Standard Insurance Company, The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York, Standard Retirement Services, Inc., StanCorp Mortgage Investors, Inc., StanCorp Investment Advisers, Inc., StanCorp Real Estate, LLC, and StanCorp Equities, Inc.


1 Disclaimer: Past successes of the program does not guarantee any type of future outcomes or savings.



Lisa Martin-Bomnskie