Posted February 13, 2022 by Mark Perna
What are younger workers struggling with the most? New research indicates just how stressed they are—and what managers can do about it. Mark’s article, “Why It’s Getting Harder For Young Professionals To Stay Mentally Healthy,” published at Forbes.com on January 21, 2022.
Younger professionals today are finding it harder to cope with life and work than their older counterparts, according to several recent studies. An October LifeWorks survey reported that 34% of individuals under 40 indicate that they feel in crisis or have concerns about their mental health and their ability to cope, while only 8% of individuals 50 and older report the same.
An international study by Bain & Company also found that increasing numbers of Millennial and Gen-Z workers (61%) are stressed, overwhelmed and in danger of burnout at work, compared to 40% of those 35 and above. What are they most worried about? Finances, job security and failing to meet their career goals in the next 10 years were the top stressors.
I call the Millennials and Generation Z collectively ‘the Why Generation,’ because that’s the question they’re always asking. Although they differ in many ways, in one thing they are very alike: they have to know the reason behind everything they’re asked to do. In most cases, their constant question ‘why?’ isn’t a smart-aleck or insubordinate response. They genuinely want to see the bigger picture so they can make the best contribution to the task or outcome at hand.
Young people’s innate curiosity about how things work is a valuable asset in the workplace, but rising levels of mental health challenges are threatening their contribution. They’re more stressed than ever, and it’s hurting not just their careers, but the companies they power.
What follows are three key reasons that the mental health challenges of younger-gen workers are escalating beyond that of their older peers—and how managers can help.
Younger workers, early in their careers, are still building their network of peers, mentors and resources. The opportunity to connect with others spontaneously in the workplace all but disappeared in March 2020 during the lockdowns. Younger workers found it especially difficult to deal with the seismic transitions of that time. While remote work is now a preferred choice for many, others find that it only exacerbates their feelings of crisis and isolation.
LifeWorks found that 9% of respondents have not had positive experiences with their manager since the pandemic started. “A manager’s relationship with each staff member is one of the most important things in defining the employee’s experience at work,” says Paula Allen, Global Leader of Research and Total Wellbeing at LifeWorks. “Even though there is a hierarchy, a truly adult-to-adult approach to the relationship allows the work relationship to thrive. When this happens, employees feel respect, a sense of control and that they are supported. This is the foundation of both engagement and wellbeing.”
In addition to struggles with their managers, 8% of respondents reported negative experiences with their workplace peers since the onset of the pandemic. Employees who report negative experiences with coworkers also report an isolation score more than 4x lower than those who have had positive experiences with colleagues. This is resulting in a productivity score more than 10 points below the national average.
While every situation is different, Allen believes that managers can take the lead in fostering healthy peer relationships within their teams. “Awful dynamics can happen when people feel the need to jockey for a manager’s favor or if they feel one or some are in the less favored group,” she says. “Managers are not required to help employees make friends with each other, but they should be intentional about not creating a situation where people feel they need to (or can) stab each other in the back.”
“Identity cushions” are those markers by which individuals find their place, purpose and sense of normalcy and wellbeing. They cushion the impact of adverse life circumstances and allow a person to deal with stress productively. Many younger-gen professionals, just finding themselves, were hit by the pandemic with very little identity cushioning to soften the blow.
Allen points out that starting your career is a major life transition and it happens around the same time as many other major changes, such as new living arrangements and relationships. “Transitions are stressful to begin with, but one of the cushions comes from one social circle and validation indicators,” she says. “The disruption of the pandemic took much of the social component at work, and validation (as well as coaching and other support) became more formal and actually less evident.”
Older workers, on the other hand, tend to have stronger identity cushions that allow them to better absorb the impact of stressors like the pandemic. “They’re more likely to have proven themselves, more likely to have established personal networks at work and more likely to be in a stable period of life,” says Allen. “Older workers are not immune to stress but in general their life circumstances have more identity cushions.”
Millennials and money: it’s a complicated relationship. And while the younger Gen-Z tends to be more debt-averse than the generation before them, they’re not immune to the economic challenges many people are experiencing thanks to inflation and other factors. The difference is, many younger workers face these economic blows with fewer resources to bolster their financial resilience.
According to Bain & Company, young people’s financial attitudes are significantly influenced by their country’s economic climate. Workers in emerging markets were overwhelming optimistic that their lives would be better in five to ten years (81%), while only 63% in developed economies could say the same. The study also found that “absolute upward mobility,” defined as earning more than one’s parents, is harder today for young American professionals than they have been for any generation since World War II.
Ongoing financial worries can hang heavy on the mind. To attract and retain young talent, companies need to be sensitive to these pressures and offer transparent opportunities for younger workers to advance their careers and earnings.
Allen believes that companies have a responsibility to create a positive work culture that will help young people overcome their mental health challenges. “Empathy is number one; without it, managers cannot make connections, and even the best of communicators will not communicate in a way that make people feel safe,” she says. “When people feel they can be who they really are, feel appreciated and feel like their manager wants them to be both successful and healthy, there is a huge benefit to mental wellbeing.” But when the opposite is true, Allen warns, there is a massive amount of emotional energy tied up in protecting yourself. “In that situation, mental wellbeing is compromised as is one’s effectiveness at work.”
Of course, to help their teams, managers also need to guard their own mental health. Allen warns that the grit that many managers show does not make them immune to mental-health challenges, but the risk can be reduced. “Managers need to invest in the mental health like we all do,” she says. “It is important to have a balance of experiences every day—fun, social contact, accomplishment—in addition to or part of work tasks. Physical self-care, especially movement, sleep and a healthy diet are all as critical for managers as everyone else.”
Allen also advises those in leadership to seek their own support, especially from work peers. “Fostering peer relationships has been shown to be helpful to managers in prioritizing and in feeling a sense of community, which is important for wellbeing,” she says. “Managers also need training to help them deal with challenging employee situations, like when an employee’s behavior changes and/or comes to them with a mental-health challenge.”
With Millennials alone projected to comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025, it’s clear that the mental health of the younger workforce will be a key factor in every company’s success or struggle. Managers are on the front line of this challenge, and they need the resources to support the mental health of both their teams and themselves. It’s time for organizations to step up their efforts in this area—and make mental health a priority in 2022 and beyond.