Today’s Young Worker Is Stressed Out and Anxious

Will those in HR need to become de facto counselors?

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie September 13, 2018
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​Claude Silver has seen plenty of young professionals with mental health disorders—especially anxiety—in her work as chief heart officer for VaynerMedia, a digital advertising company based in New York City with locations around the U.S.

"I have seen a lot of anxiety with this younger generation just coming out of universities and into the workforce," Silver said. "I've also noticed the number of people who are on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. It's astonishing how many of these young people are medicated."

Silver, who is a human resource officer for her company, admits that she has become a sort of de facto counselor for some of these workers, even though she doesn't have professional credentials in the field. She believes that HR departments of the future may need to consider hiring professional therapists to augment the employee assistance programs (EAPs) that many companies offer.

"When you have someone spinning out in the midst of an anxiety attack, you've lost them for the rest of the day," she said. Whereas, "If you have someone onsite who can see to them immediately, it does calm them down" and maybe allow them to return to work more quickly.

Increasingly, young adults are struggling with mental health issues. Over the past decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services, according to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase—to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011—of undergraduates reporting "overwhelming anxiety" in the previous year, the paper reports.

Since 2009, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health has been warning about higher levels of mental illness among college students. By age 18, a National Institute of Mental Health study of Millennials found, 35 percent will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 25 percent will be diagnosed with a substance addiction, and 20 percent will have a behavioral disorder.

These are the young men and women who've already entered the workforce, or who soon will.

"Because we work so many hours, people in today's world want to bring their full selves into the workplace, and their full selves include mental disorders they suffer," said Dan Schawbel, 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. "It's who they are. Therefore, leaders have to be more empathetic and supportive of people going through tough times mentally because it's more common than you think."

Mental Health at the Forefront

The theories behind the growing number of people with anxiety disorders are many: Modern devices such as iPhones and computers discourage people from having face-to-face interactions that are necessary to a healthy mental state; the same technology sometimes drives employees to stay in touch with work round-the-clock, which can cause stress; globalization and other economic dynamics have increased the competitive pressure on young professionals to excel; today's parents have been prone to over-schedule their children and to expect more of them than previous generations did; and, because there may now be less stigma attached to mental health problems, people may be more willing to discuss them openly and seek help for them. 

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

In 2016, PwC's UK office appointed its first full-time mental health leader, then launched a campaign called "Green Light to Talk," which encouraged people to talk about mental health at work. More than 12,500 of PwC's UK employees wore green ribbons indicating their support for the idea, and the movement went viral on Twitter.

A year later, 150 organizations in the UK signed on to a similar campaign, and 70,000 ribbons were distributed across London and in buildings like the Bank of England and One Canada Square, the second-tallest building in the UK.

The campaign "seeks to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness," said Sarah Churchman, PwC's chief inclusion, community and well-being officer. "Given the increasing incidence of stress, anxiety, depression and more serious mental health conditions within our society, we wanted to cultivate a workplace environment where our people felt comfortable talking about their mental well-being."

DuPont has developed an educational program to encourage employees to reach out to co-workers who appear to be in emotional distress. The company's ICU campaign (which stands for Identifying, Connecting and Understanding, as well as "I See You") includes a five-minute video that teaches employees how to ask appropriate questions when someone appears to be struggling.

When the Employer Is to Blame

Sometimes, mental health issues among employees can be brought on by working conditions, especially if employees are young, inexperienced and unsure what to do if they feel a company is taking advantage of them.

As a management trainee at a boutique hotel chain in Washington, D.C., Sarah Cook was scheduled to rotate through every department in one year. At first, she relished learning about housekeeping and front-desk responsibilities, and she didn't mind the long hours, spending weekends at the hotel or working on her days off.

But it wasn't long before she started to regret the grueling schedule and unusual duties. Although a college graduate, she often was asked to handle menial chores, like serving as a waitress in the hotel restaurant when it was short-staffed. Her unpredictable hours also meant she couldn't see friends who worked traditional weekday schedules.

Cook (not her real name) asked her manager—and then HR—if she could have a more predictable schedule. Both told her that staff shortages are a way of life in the hospitality industry.

Soon after that, Cook suffered a seizure at work, where she became dizzy and needed to sit for over an hour. After several similar episodes, she sought medical help and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that was brought on by her working conditions.

She left her job after 11 months, in large part because her therapist told her that, if she didn't leave, she'd continue to suffer seizures.

"I wish HR and my manager had been more sensitive to my situation, and more helpful in trying to find a solution," Cook said. "I liked working there, but their complete lack of regard for employees' time was costing them. Several other new managers also were seeking therapy to handle the stress and unpredictable nature of the job, and, within a year of me leaving, they had all left, too."

Mental Health Aid for the Future

Obviously, referring a distressed employee to an EAP is the standard response for many HR departments. But, increasingly, Schawbel predicts, HR professionals will either need to become stand-in counselors before referring employees to professionals, or hire onsite therapists to deal with mental health issues immediately, rather than wait for a worker to go through an EAP system that can be time-consuming.

"I think HR is going to have to step up and take the lead on this," he said. "What if someone has a panic attack at work? How do they handle that situation? With so many young people heading into the workplace, there will be more of a demand for … new skills. I think we're going to have to have … therapists who will be recruited for HR."

Mental health experts also recommend these practices in the workplace:

  • Provide support and make reasonable adjustments to working conditions.
  • Maintain privacy around the worker and his or her condition.
  • Approach young workers when you are concerned. If they don't want to talk to you, encourage them to seek support and provide referrals to a health professional.
  • Speak to young workers regularly. Having a good relationship means you will know what their normal behavior is and can identify when things have changed.
  • Because alcohol may increase anxiety and stress and contribute to feelings of depression, ensure your workplace culture doesn't encourage excessive alcohol use. Provide nonalcohol-focused alternatives for workplace events.
  • Reduce stress for young workers by ensuring they take regular breaks.
  • Provide ample time between shifts to allow for rest and recovery.
  • Have a list of contacts for a range of help and support services posted prominently in your workplace.
  • Make sure your health care plan gives convenient access to mental health services and prescriptions. It often can take three months just to get an initial appointment with a psychiatrist.
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