The Next Generation

Supporting Employees as a Competitive Advantage

Work-life balance is a myth, especially for the newest workforce demographic

It’s 2019 and millennials are now very much adults — the youngest of whom are turning 23. In fact, many millennials are well into their 30s and on their way to positions of leadership, if not already holding them. That means today’s entry-level employees are from Gen Z, defined most commonly as those born after 1997. Gen Z employees are digital natives and always connected. Most of them have never known a world without computers or the internet.

With shifting age brackets comes shifting workplace expectations. Today’s employee recognizes that a work-life balance is unrealistic and ultimately impossible. New technology and evolving workplace environments are blurring the lines between work and play.

Generational Timeline: 1928 - 1945 Silent Generation, 1946 - 1964 Baby Boomers, 1965 - 1980 Generation X, 1981 - 1996 Milliennials, 1997 - today Generation Z

The idea that employees turn off their emotions and personal stressors the moment their fingers hit the keys is a dangerous misconception. But this misconception is beginning to lose traction.

Instead of work-life balance, these employees strive for work-life synergy:
a fulfilling personal life bolstered by an equally fulfilling work life that makes them feel supported, engaged and meaningful.

Achieving work-life synergy requires a culture of support where human connections flourish, a culture that engages the whole employee and encourages workers to become the best possible version of themselves.

But that’s where the workplace is failing them.

At 15Five, we wanted to fully understand where workplaces are falling short. We surveyed 1,000 full-time U.S. workers and 500 U.S. managers to capture insights about the landscape of today’s workplace. We asked questions that helped us further understand the support requirements of employees, their relationships with their leaders and their future plans.

Section 1

The Internal
Landscape of
Today’s Workplace

Here’s the good news:
People management has improved

Employee engagement is on the rise, reaching 34%, the highest level since 2000. The rising percentage of engaged employees is good news — but not when you flip it on its head. What about the remaining 66% of employees? What keeps them from feeling fully engaged?

Now the bad news:
Businesses still aren’t supporting the whole employee

The new generation of employees needs more to feel emotionally supported and perform at its best. These employees are challenging conventional ideas around work-life balance, and asking for more than just a paycheck and two weeks of PTO from their workplace. Today’s employee craves synergy between life and career, not a black and white divide.
Technology, working hours and office design have made progress in adapting to this new generation and its desire for synergy. Management styles have not. We’ve made great strides in the workplace — but there’s still work to do.

Miserable people don’t make good employees

Being your best self in this paradigm of work-life synergy is tied directly to emotional well-being in and out of the workplace — which for most of our survey audience, is obvious. We found that 90% of employees admit to performing better when their company supports their emotional wellness. Additionally, 94% of managers feel that the emotional wellness of their direct reports is just as important as their direct reports’ job performance.

But here’s where it gets sticky. Even if employees and their leaders believe that emotional wellness and mental health are important, they aren’t acting on it when they should be:


of managers make it a point to ask about emotional wellness in 1-on-1s.


Over half of employees have never brought up a personal matter with their managers.


of employeees with access to Employee Assistance programs take advantage.


90% of employees admit to performing better when their company supports their emotional wellness.

The disconnect between believing emotional wellness is important and actually taking steps to improve emotional health is starting to show. While the workplace may have improved since the Iron Age of cubicles, the place where employees spend a majority of their time and brainpower isn’t a source of satisfaction and fulfillment — it’s a stressor. When we asked employees to identify the one word that comes to mind when they think about work, the top three results were money, stress, and busy. Less than 1% of employees responded with happy, less than 0.5% said rewarding.

79% of employees are either sometimes or always thinking about work outside of the office.

0.5% described their job as “rewarding” when asked to identify the one word that comes to mind when they think about work.

So where exactly is the disconnect?

Not everyone is comfortable discussing mental and emotional health, and nowhere is the comfort gap felt more than between the various generations of workers. The current workplace represents a melting pot of Gen Zers, baby boomers and millennials – which is a beautiful thing for a collaborative, evolving workplace. But these differences also have the tendency to stall more intimate 1-on-1 discussions.

Times are changing and old stigmas are evaporating, but you can’t expect everyone to adapt to the changes quickly. Of Gen Z and millennial managers, 50% believe their own emotional wellness has an effect on their direct reports.

In comparison, only 33% of baby boomers say the same.

But the comfort gap becomes even more obvious at the generational poles – between a Gen Z and a baby boomer employee there could be a 50-year age difference.

75% of Gen Zers have asked for personal advice during a 1-on-1 with their manager, only 23% of baby boomers have done the same

73% of Gen Zers take advantage of their organizations’ Employee Assistance programs, only 24% of baby boomers do so

Of Gen Z and millennial managers, 50% believe their own emotional wellness has an effect on their direct reports.

Mental and emotional health can be uncomfortable topics in general, but even more so for those who are unsure how to broach the subject or are unfamiliar with the appropriate language surrounding it. Without proper training and guidance on how to discuss these sensitive topics, some might find it easier not to talk about them at all.

In fact, over a quarter of the managers surveyed who received no training prior to taking on a leadership role said they never or very rarely ask about their direct reports’ emotional health. This is 10 percentage points higher than managers who said they received at least some training.

Fortunately, the desire to learn holds the power to change this:

79% of managers surveyed want more managerial and leadership training.

Key relationships are lacking confidence and trust

Managers and their employees are not forming relationships built on confidence and trust. This breeds discomfort and miscommunication, especially when it comes to faith in the other party’s honesty. Of managers surveyed, 47% said they think their direct reports withhold sensitive information from them. However, only 1 in 4 employees reported they withhold some sensitive or negative feedback from their managers. That’s a dangerous difference of opinion.

There’s also some disagreement around whether or not leaders are doing their jobs well. While nearly all (99%) of managers are confident they are able to meet the expectations of their direct reports, 48% of employees believe they could do the job better. Tack on the 32% of employees who would be relieved to learn their manager was leaving and the 40% who are not fully confident in their managers’ ability to lead, and it becomes clear there are some serious trust issues. Without trust, how can employees feel supported by their managers?

48% of employees believe they could do their job better than their manager.

Data shows that as employees’ confidence in their managers plummets, so does their happiness at work

Those that are not at all confident in their managers rated their work happiness 4 out of 10 (1 being “not happy at all” and 10 being “extremely happy”), while those who are extremely confident in their managers rated their work happiness 8 out of 10.

Employee Happiness

20% of employees who are not at all confident in their managers plan to leave their jobs within 6 months.

10% of those who are not at all confident in their managers indicate stress as the word most related to work.

Section 2

Redefining Workplace Culture

To support employees, you must create a culture of human connection

Taking time to listen to and engage with employees can dramatically transform workplace culture. But what’s the best way for leadership to facilitate this culture?

Genuine conversations and consistent human connection have the power to bridge gaps — whether they are educational, generational or hierarchical. But there’s a fine line between engaging with employees regularly and micromanaging. A healthy routine of communication facilitates transparency, and garners trust and honesty from both parties. Without those two traits, conversations and 1-on-1s can’t include discussions about mental and emotional health, let alone job dissatisfaction and performance issues.

The onus is on leadership to encourage a culture of feedback and honest communication. Healthy and productive communication isn’t exclusively top-down. That means organizations must offer mediums like conversation forums and company-wide survey prompts in which employees are encouraged to give feedback to their managers.

Currently, less than half of employees report their managers are fully open to suggestions.

Going through the motions and facilitating conversations for the sake of saying you had them isn’t the recommended route

Conversations, check-ins and 1-on-1s must be treated as priorities in order to be successful (and worth everyone’s time). Here are some ways to ensure that’s the case:

  • Provide training for both managers and employees on discussing sensitive, ongoing topics. Trainings must evolve alongside cultural events and headlines.
  • Make personal and professional development actionable and provide objectives for both.
  • Make emotional well-being a goal and HR initiative. Set up alerts that tell you when an employee is not taking advantage of organizational resources that will support them as a whole person — training, time off, etc.
  • For additional tips on crafting valuable conversations, consult our 1-on-1 checklist in the appendix.

Here’s what happens when you create a human-centric workplace

When you check in and engage regularly with employees, something great happens. Confidence and trust make a comeback.


73% are extremely confident in their managers’ ability as leaders


41% are extremely confident in their managers’ ability as leaders

84% are always honest with their manager

58% are always honest with their manager

56% think their 1-on-1s are very productive and useful

29% think their 1-on-1s are very productive and useful

58% have asked for personal advice during a 1-on-1

29% have asked for personal advice during a 1-on-1

61% said their managers are extremely open to suggestions

27% said their managers are extremely open to suggestions

52% use their companies’ Employee Assistance programs

28% use their companies’ Employee Assistance programs

And when employees who received regular feedback were asked what word comes to mind when they think of work, money and fun took the top spots.

Supporting employees through a human-centric culture is an investment in the entire organization. The ROI speaks for itself: 50% of employees who have very productive and useful 1-on-1s plan to stay at their organizations for five or more years. In other words, supporting the whole employee is an incredible retention tool.

Not only do supported, engaged and happy employees contribute to a positive, human-centric work culture, but their support trickles down to the customer experience. Employees who are their best selves produce their best work, and feel supported to use their strengths and talents to help the organization grow — something that customers and clients will notice.

50% of employees who have very productive and useful 1-on-1s plan to stay at their organizations for five or more years.

Communicate, educate, repeat

People want to be happy. While the meaning of happiness differs when it comes to employees’ personal lives, in the workplace, it translates to a culture where they feel safe, heard, engaged and meaningful.

It’s up to leaders to support employees with well-trained managers and the communication infrastructure necessary to encourage valuable conversations. Through meaningful, consistent check-ins and 1-on-1s, organizations can bridge the gaps dividing their people and heal fractured relationships. Then, when both employees and managers are empowered to become their best selves at work, a positive work-life synergy follows.

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