Young Workers Report an Alarming Increase in Depression

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 29, 2019
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Young Workers Report an Alarming Increase in Depression


Symptoms of depression have surged among U.S. workers in the past five years, with younger employees showing the most dramatic increase, according to a survey of nearly half a million workers.

The proportion of workers with symptoms of depression rose 18 percent from 2014 to 2018, and Generation Z employees (those ages 18-24) had the largest increase: The number of workers in this age group who showed symptoms of depression rose 39 percent over those five years, according to the research from New York City-based Happify Health, which provides mental health and wellness technology. Women of Generation Z had the hardest time, showing the greatest increase in the prevalence of depressive symptoms (up 44 percent) among all age groups. 

While Millennials (ages 25-34) fared a bit better, they also experienced a large jump in symptoms of depression—up 24 percent in those five years.

Symptoms of depression may tend to decrease with age, the research found. The oldest age group (55-64) actually showed a slight improvement in their mental well-being in 2018 compared with 2014.

"Young adulthood is a transitional time when we're often just entering the workforce, figuring out who we are and what we want to do with our lives, which can be very challenging and, for some, can cause very negative psychological reactions while not having yet developed the skills to combat those feelings," said Ran Zilca, chief data scientist for Happify Health. "While this analysis doesn't tell us if the causes are internal or external to their employment, we know from prior Happify research that younger adults tend to be more stressed and worried about job-related matters than older workers."

The research is a retrospective analysis of more than 480,000 first-time Happify Health users ages 18 to 64 who self-identified as employed. It examined the prevalence of depressive symptoms among these workers from January 2014 through December 2018.

Relative Percent Change in Symptoms of Depression

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Overwhelmed by Options

Acacia Parks, Ph.D., is chief scientist at Happify Health. She sees two main reasons why younger workers in particular show signs of depression.

One reason is they have too many choices, which Parks said can leave young workers feeling "paralyzed."

Younger workers "going to college now face so many more options in terms of where to go to school, what to major in and what job to aim for," Parks said. "They have access to so much information via the Internet—a universe where the possibilities are endless—which can be both exciting and overwhelming."

Another reason, she suggested, is that young workers must cope with more uncertainty than their older colleagues did when first entering the workforce.

"Because technology has upped the pace of everything, college students are preparing for jobs that do not yet exist but will by the time they graduate. Young adults in previous generations may have easily chosen a profession as they finished high school. Nowadays, preparing for a job is like trying to sail to an island that's moving. Being a young adult in 2019 means accepting a greater amount of uncertainty than young adults of previous generations, and intolerance of uncertainty is linked to numerous psychological difficulties."

Likes and Fans Can't Replace Relationships

Dan Schawbel is author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2018) and research director at Future Workplace, an executive development firm. He sees depression among young workers as the consequence of a host of complex social, political and financial pressures.

"It's never one thing; it's the combination of many things happening at once," he said. "It's [college] loan debt, anxiety about our future as a country and about things like climate change, paying health care bills. Too many people who've graduated from college are still living paycheck to paycheck.

"Then you have the technology component, and it has made people more anxious and depressed. They compare their lives to the lives of other people who are actually fabricating their lives [on social media]. A lot of people are looking for fans, followers, likes and views—instead of real human connection. If you're lacking relationships, you feel isolated and lonely, which leads to depression."

Andrew Sumitani, director of marketing for Seattle-based TINYpulse, which creates employee engagement surveys, put it another way: "Picture a young person who's been on Instagram for five years, collecting likes and comments with every post. But at their new job, no one celebrates or acknowledges their achievements. No pay raise or perk in the world will be able to fulfill that need for a sense of accomplishment and purpose."

The Plight of the Young Woman

Young women, Schawbel said, may feel particular pressure at work because they recognize that despite education and hard work, the gender wage gap persists, as do shortages of women in C-suites and other leadership positions.

"I think it's knowing that [things] are almost stacked against you," he said. "And it's knowing you're up against trade-offs in work and family life."

Said Sumitani: "The promise of gender equity is profoundly unfulfilled, from paychecks to workplace recognition and everything in between. If we use the definition of happiness as reality minus expectations, I'd be surprised if there wasn't a compounded effect in young women for the realities they face at work. Young women are intensely aware of the challenges they face without seeing progress. That's got to be discouraging."

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