Young Adults Cope with Mental Health, Substance Abuse in the Pandemic

Andrew Deichler By Andrew Deichler April 14, 2021

​Workers are struggling with mental health and substance abuse in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research. But by a wide margin, young people are experiencing these issues in greater numbers than their older counterparts.

All Workers Face Issues

Insurance provider The Standard and Versta Research completed two studies on workers' mental health in 2019 and 2020 and found that the pandemic has resulted in an increase in depression and anxiety across all age groups. The 2020 Behavioral Health Impact Update found that about 39 percent of workers experienced mental health issues pre-pandemic; that number is now at 46 percent. Furthermore, 11 percent of workers reported serious mental health issues, up from 7 percent in 2019.

These increases align with recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2021 Household Pulse Survey found that 41 percent of adults in the U.S. reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression in January 2021. That's quite a contrast to data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics in the first half of 2019, which found that only 11 percent of the population was experiencing issues.

Meanwhile, the number of workers dealing with substance abuse has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Forty-nine percent say they are coping with some level of addiction. Nearly 1 in 5 workers (19%) report at least weekly usage, with alcohol remaining the most common substance for abuse. One in 10 workers report abusing prescription medication. A KFF Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that 12 percent of people increased alcohol and substance abuse due to stress over the pandemic.

Subsequently, these employees' productivity has decreased. Sixty-five percent of workers say they have lost more than 10 hours of productivity during the workweek to mental health struggles, up from 58 percent pre-pandemic.

About one-third (36 percent) of workers admit to substance abuse affecting their work since the pandemic began. Fifty-seven percent say they've lost 10-plus hours per week due to substance abuse, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2019.

Young Workers Hit Hardest

Young people (ages 18-40) have been hit the hardest in terms of mental health concerns throughout the crisis. Seventy-one percent of Generation Z workers and 59 percent of Millennials reported mental health issues, compared with 35 percent of Generation X workers and 22 percent of Boomers.

Serious mental illness appears to be taking the greatest toll on Millennial workers, jumping from 10 percent when the pandemic began to 16 percent. Members of Generation Z and Generation X both saw 3 percent upticks, while Boomers saw only a 1 percent increase.  

Young people also had the highest numbers when it came to substance abuse. Generation Z had the highest contingent of workers who admitted to addiction or abuse impacting their work.

The study identified several key issues that are currently causing young people stress:

  • Less job security.
  • Less housing stability.
  • More debt.
  • Lower wage earnings than previous generations.

Melissa Oliver-Janiak, senior director of benefits and the HR Service Center at The Standard, noted that the pandemic has compounded many of the stressors that younger workers already faced. "Younger workers generally have less job security and less housing stability," she said. "They are just starting out and maybe still living at home or with roommates and are more likely to have student debt."

She added that wages for younger workers also don't go as far as they did for older generations like Boomers. "Twenty years ago, you could survive on less money than today; inflation has really eroded the value of the dollar, and so I think that has an impact on younger workers more than older workers," she said.  

Employer Response

The survey noted that, pre-pandemic, employers received low marks for how they supported employees' mental health concerns. Though those numbers are still low (in the upper 20 percent to low 30 percent range), 2020 survey respondents indicated that their employers have improved access to mental health services and accommodations and have done more to create a culture that supports mental health.

[Visit SHRM's Mental Health Resource Hub Page for tools and information on supporting mental health at work.]

As a result, more workers are asking for help with mental health. Forty-five percent now feel comfortable seeking employer help, and 58 percent are comfortable accepting it, compared with 38 percent and 53 percent pre-pandemic. Sixty-nine percent of employees also say they know who to ask for help at their employers, up five points from before the pandemic.

That said, there is an opportunity to do more to support young workers. Although younger workers are more open to talking about mental health issues and more likely to miss work due to mental health treatment, they were also found to be the least knowledgeable about the benefits and resources they have access to. Only 37 percent of Generation Z workers said they feel comfortable seeking employer help, compared to 47 percent of Millennials, 45 percent of Generation X and 42 percent of Boomers.

The Standard recommends that HR departments continue to step up their efforts to provide comprehensive benefits information to all employees. Perhaps simply because they are relatively new to the workforce, Generation Z workers may not be aware of the resources available to them. "It's important for HR teams to address this and know that younger generations may need more support, communication and accommodations as they continue to struggle with behavioral health issues exacerbated by the pandemic," Oliver-Janiak said.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

With the continued rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and companies beginning to hire again, optimism—particularly among young professionals just joining the workforce—appears to be on the rise. Debbie Mackey, SHRM-SCP, distinguished lecturer at the University of Tennessee's Haslam College of Business in Knoxville and an advisor for the school's Society for Human Resource Management student chapter, noted that attitudes among her senior students have changed dramatically over past couple months.

"I have HR students with internships, and some of those lead to jobs," she said. "Also, I had lunch recently with some alums, and they all are searching for interns or have job leads. So, the job market for human resources right now in this area has been great."

But there are still issues to contend with. Mackey noted that some companies that have been interested in hiring her current and former students have pushed back employee start dates. Others have switched full-time positions to contract offers. These types of challenges can make it difficult for recent graduates, especially those who need to relocate for a new job. "Most of the time, you have to sign a year's lease," she said. "It's stressful to move to a new city when you don't know about [your job security]."



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