Mental health and the younger worker

A survey out this week shows high levels of mental ill health among younger workers. While mental health is now on employers’ agenda are they ready for just how much impact it will have in the future?


Mental health at work is big these days, but not as big as it will be in the future if employers don’t get their response to it right.

A survey released by Accenture earlier this week showed a huge 77% of young workers in the UK have experienced mental health challenges, with 48% saying they have had suicidal thoughts compared to 35% of older workers.

Mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, seem to be more and more prevalent among young people. Whether this is due to greater awareness or simply more mental ill health has been the subject of much debate. However, it does appear that the numbers of young girls suffering from anxiety and depression is on the rise.

I have three teenage daughters and this sounds right to me. I know several who have had mental health issues. In fact, I probably know more teenage girls who have suffered mental health issues than haven’t.

The possible reasons are varied from family break-up; abuse; bullying; loneliness; the pressure to achieve on all fronts and fast; the impending threat of a life in debt; a general lack of hope for the future; the increasing commodification of life generally, for instance, the use of social media as a kind of PR platform for your own personal brand, promoting a fake idea of other people’s lives and making young people feel a failure even if they don’t really buy the propaganda; the sense that they could be easily swiped away or ghosted as if they are of no worth whatsoever…The list goes on and on.

Then there is increased exposure to the mental ill health of others. My kids are big K-pop fans. They like it in part because it is an escape from the gloom they see around them in adult life – the collapse of public services, climate change, inequality, increasing racism, Brexit. Yet mental illness has reached even this bubble of pop froth. Several K-pop stars have committed suicide, most recently a young female singer this week. Suicidal thoughts and anxiety seem to have become almost the norm.

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Mental health services are overwhelmed and overstretched. I’ve witnessed how different parts of the mental health service seem to be fighting resource battles against each other while the child in the middle gets completely lost. So much for a child-centred approach.

The problem is that a lot of what comes at young girls these days is so contradictory. Empowerment on the one hand matched by a sense of total worthlessness; the promise of instant success matched by a sense that failure is never far away…Those who dismiss this as so much snowflakery simply haven’t had a proper conversation with young people.

And this is the workforce of the future. So what can employers do to prepare? The Accenture survey shows that younger workers find it more difficult to talk about their own issues than more senior colleagues, in part because they don’t have the language to express how they feel. However, it also found that, in organisations that are providing support, young workers were 37 percent less likely to have recent experience of a mental ill health challenge.

So the workplace environment is important. That means providing spaces where people can talk to each other and listen as well as a culture built on collaboration and mutual support rather than the focus on hyper-individualism and competition we have seen in recent decades. The current wave of protests around the world, often led by the young, suggests they want not just a better world, but one where people work together to make a difference.

That sense of collaboration and mutual support is also a big issue to consider with regard to flexible working too. Homeworking, for instance, can help give people a greater work life balance, but it can lead to greater isolation, particularly for younger workers, if not properly supported. The social aspect of work is important and shouldn’t be ignored.

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