Mental health and young people: the impact on work

A new report shows that young people are often starting jobs with existing mental health problems, made worse by bad jobs. What can be done?

woman sitting alone in dark room


There’s a lot of concern around at the moment about younger workers’ mental health. Studies show higher levels of economic inactivity among younger people since the pandemic, with mental health having risen sharply as a reason for dropout.

Parents of teenagers probably have a better insight than many into what is happening. Even if we find it hard to address all the possible causes, we can see what’s coming down the line and employers would do well to take note [and maybe use the parents they have as a resource to understand the next generation of workers].

A report out from the Institute for Employment Studies [IES] last week says the current problems may be significantly worse than employers think. It states that “the combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis and decreasing support for young people has exacerbated pre-existing concerning trends in young people’s mental health, resulting in more and more young people choosing not to disclose pre-existing mental health conditions in the workplace”.

Young People’s Mental Health in the Workplace, based on an online survey of 2,000 young people aged 16-25, found nearly half (46%) of young people surveyed who have a mental health condition do not disclose this to their employer due to feeling uncomfortable doing so. Interestingly, given we are told men are reticent to talk about personal issues generally, women are much less likely to disclose compared to male peers. Three in 10 young people in the survey had either left a previous job or are planning on leaving their current job as a result of its impact on their mental health. Over two-fifths of young people in the survey either had a pre-existing mental health condition or challenge when recruited to their job (37%) or started experiencing one after joining (7%).

The report looks at whether work-related issues, such as career progression opportunities, have an impact. For some they definitely do, with 30% saying they left a job or are planning to leave their current job as a result of its impact on their mental health. For those with an existing mental health issue this was worse, showing poor work conditions are a contributory factor, although there are clearly a lot of other underlying causes. Starting work after school or college is a big transition, particularly for the current cohort who have been through so much uncertainty during Covid, and this should be acknowledged, even if we can’t blame Covid for all of this because we know mental health was a big concern before the pandemic. Covid, like work conditions, is one factor in a maze of other ones.

I asked my 20 year old what she thinks is the main cause of all the unhappiness. She said ‘talking about it all the time’, an answer which was basically designed to stop me asking the question, but she may have a point there. While it’s good to talk, talking alone is not a solution. First of all, people have to listen.

My daughter paused for a minute after her first answer and said ‘the future doesn’t look too bright’.  But hopelessness on its own can’t be the reason behind the rise in, say, eating disorders. Something else is going on, something to do with self worth which have been blamed on everything from neoliberalism and hyperindividualism to the rise of self-commodification, hook-up culture or any other of the consequences of the Pandora’s Box that has opened up with the internet. All these things are super complicated and layered and it is hard to pull them apart. It often feels like we are still very much in the dark when it comes to understanding mental health, which, of course, affects how we address it. I feel like the older I get the more questions I have.

In any event, it was probably not the best time to be having the conversation as we were in the car – my daughter was very much a captive audience – and she was listening to the 1975 so wasn’t too keen on interrupting the music. The song playing was the cheerful track I always wanna die sometimes…

As with all things teenage, parents are constantly on the backfoot, trying to get to grips with an iceberg that they can only see the surface of. We are left to try and guess the underlying problems because, of course, teenagers don’t want to tell us everything [or indeed anything much] because they are trying, as they must, to be independent [even if they are still very much need help because they are bombarded with often conflicting messages and ideas all the time]. What’s more, it often seems that it is never the right time to have any kind of conversation with a teenager. You have to wait for the moment they let something slip and pounce on it without making it look like you are too interested. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Mental health is a big thing, but there are practical things that can be done that will have an impact, such as improving working conditions or housing or access to food or relieving poverty. Tackling each one can help as well as giving young people a sense that there are options [while not overwhelming them with too many of them], that they are important and that we do care [even if they don’t want to talk to us].

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