Today’s Young Worker Is Stressed-Out and Anxious

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie February 9, 2021
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Today’s Young Worker Is Stressed-Out and Anxious

​Even before the pandemic and social unrest of 2020, Claude Silver had 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 managers 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.

Younger Workers Experiencing Loss

2020 certainly didn't make things easier for young adult workers. COVID-19, an uncertain economy, racial tensions, and a divisive presidential election that led to riots and deaths have all taken a toll on mental health, particularly among younger adults.

Generation Z employees—those born starting in 1995—were three times more likely than all other employees since the pandemic started to have sought professional help for stress, burnout or other mental health reasons, according to an August 2020 MetLife report.

Generation Z teens (ages 13-17) and Generation Z adults (ages 18-23) "are facing unprecedented uncertainty, are experiencing elevated stress and are already reporting symptoms of depression," according to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America 2020 report.

"Younger workers experienced a lot of loss over the past year that has impacted their well-being and mental health," said Meghan Stokes, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of clinical services with BHS, a Baltimore-based company offering workplace wellness and EAPs. "Most of us think about coping with the loss of a loved one, but this past year, [younger] individuals also had to deal with the loss of important events, such as graduation, and a way of life, such as the inability to gather with social networks or go to the gym. What people used to be able to cope with in the past with normal coping strategies just isn't working now, and they need a higher level of support."

Marked Stress and Anxiety Before 2020

Research pointed to heightened young-adult stress long before 2020. 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. The current COVID-19 pandemic hasn't helped matters. 

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 that 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," said Dan Schawbel, managing partner at Workplace Intelligence, 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 smartphones 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; parents are 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. 

"Younger workers are working through lots of life transitions that can cause anxiety or stress—like the transition from school to a job, getting married, having kids," Stokes said. "Also, I think young workers are more willing to ask for help. Colleges are talking about self-care and well-being in the workplace and about work/life balance. So when we have young people enter the workplace for the first time, they are comfortable talking about this typically taboo topic."

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

Referring a distressed employee to an EAP is the standard response for many managers and HR departments. But the EAP system can be time-consuming.  Schawbel predicts more managers and HR professionals will need to either become stand-in counselors before referring employees to professionals, or hire onsite therapists to deal with mental health issues immediately.

"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," Schawbel said. "I think we're going to have to have … therapists who will be recruited for" companies. 

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 nonalcoholic 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.

This year, SHRM will partner with BHS to offer a unique mental health and workplace solution that will support employees, supervisors and organizations in managing and addressing mental health.

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