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Why are young workers so stressed out?

July 23, 2020 • read

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Why are young workers so stressed out?

When people arrive at the office, they block out external stressors and attempt to focus on their tasks at hand. After all, no one wants to bring their baggage to work. However, employees are human beings, prone to physical and mental stress. Despite their best attempts, many employees carry the weight of their mental health alongside their work responsibilities. 

The 2020 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey shone a light on a worrying trend. Millennials and Gen Z, workers in the 18-34 age range, appear to have greater workplace stress than their older colleagues. Millennials are projected to make up 75% of Canada’s workforce by 2025. So why, if they’re the growing majority, are young people so stressed out on the job? 

Millennial and Gen Z mental health statistics

  • 33% people 18-34 report high levels of stress in a typical day at work, versus 22% of employees aged 55+1 
  • 50% took at least one day off due to stress in the past year, versus 23% of employees aged 55+1
  • 47% have arrived late or left early due to stress in the past year, versus 17% of employees aged 55+1
  • 42% report workplace stress has been so intense they felt physically ill, versus 21% of employees aged 55+1 
  • 50% of millennials have left a job for mental health reasons.

The importance of mental health for workplace culture

Companies that wish to create a culture of wellness need to incorporate both physical and mental health into their strategy. Mental stress is a major cause of worker absenteeism, job turnover, and dented company morale. It can also exacerbate pre-existing employee mental health conditions. Unfortunately, mental illness is largely invisible, and highly stigmatized. 

The causes of mental stress amongst young people are complex and impossible to generalize across entire generations. Blanket statements that younger generations are “lazy” or “snowflakes” downplay the very real experience of mental illness. These statements also send the message that someone who is struggling will be judged for seeking help. 

Reasons for stress amongst younger workers

Finance 

Young workers have never known the economic landscape to be anything but volatile. They entered the workforce on the heels of the Great Recession, saddled with student loans, and balancing stagnant wages with skyrocketing real estate prices. Since 1996, the millennial age segment has  decreased in net worth by 34%

Work-life balance

Young people are well-known for having different values than older generations. They tend to desire experiences and human connections over physical assets. They’ve also developed a different relationship with work. To millennials and Gen Z, a job is a thing, not a place. If technology enables them to perform their job from anywhere, why be tethered to an office?

When young workers ask for work-life balance, there is often fear of blowback. “When younger workers talk about balance, what they are saying is, ‘I will work hard for you, but I also need a life,’” said Cali Williams Yost, the chief executive and founder of Flex Strategy Group. “Unfortunately, what leaders hear is, ‘I want to work less.’”

Technology 

While there’s a lack of causal data to link technology and social media usage with mental illness, there does seem to be a correlation. Younger people are known to be open-minded and adept at using technology. However technology does have the potential to become a dependency, leading to FOMO (fear of missing out), lowered self-esteem, and a distorted perception of reality. 

Young people’s tight-knit relationship with technology also interrupts work-life balance. Being tied to their devices, employees are notified of every email, message, and project update the moment it happens. While technology has enabled us to become more connected, it’s difficult to sever that tie outside of business hours. In some cases, the expectation is raised that employees should be available round-the-clock, since they’re on their devices anyways. 

Competitive pressures in the workforce

The word “career” has shifted in meaning to young workers. The rise of non-standard jobs, such as those in the gig economy, technically employ many young people. But, these jobs come with little longevity or safety net. 

Even amongst office jobs, the idea of staying with one company for a lifetime is off the table for most young workers. People change jobs much more frequently in the current age than in decades past. 

Increased mental health acceptance

Millenials have been tagged the “therapy generation.” While the nickname may be tongue-in-cheek, millennials at large will not deny that they endorse therapy. The benefit of growing up in a society that is more educated about mental health leads to a greater sense of community. As a result, millennials and Gen Z may not feel the need to put on a “brave face” the way that older, more stoic colleagues might. 

How to alleviate workplace stress for millennials and Gen Z

1. Examine workplace stressors

The main sources of workplace stress reported in the Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey are personal finances, workload, work-life balance, interactions with co-workers, and personal relationships. 

Many companies promote an inclusive culture manifesto, but it’s difficult to put those words into action. Employers should take “every reasonable precaution” to ensure the health and safety of all their employees as per their province’s health and safety act. This includes maintaining a workplace culture that is conducive to mental health. 

What can employers do if they find their culture becoming demoralized or toxic to mental health? “Leadership sets the tone of the workplace culture and acceptable behavior patterns,” says Shahnaz Broucek, a professor of coaching and mentoring for MBA students at the University of Michigan. “Conflict avoidance, chronic stress, and office politics can lead distracted leaders to unconsciously allow negative behaviours like bullying to poison the well.”

The first step to fixing a negative culture is for leadership to accept responsibility for the situation. Then, perform analysis to find the pain points. Take an impartial look at office interactions, and use the SCARF model to identify culture problems. 

The SCARF model

Status — higher status employees who wield power over more junior staff, and undermine them publicly.

Certainty — employees who act as information gatekeepers. 

Autonomy — micromanaging projects and undermining the personal agency of employees.

Relatedness — clique formation, ostracizing select employees, and implying they are replaceable.

Fairness — decisions that are made with little or no transparency into their rationale.

After going through this checklist, compile the results and look for any patterns. If the SCARF model flags issues in a particular area, minimize risks and maximize rewards. For example, someone might become defensive when receiving feedback. The SCARF model suggests adjusting the tone of feedback to help employees feel less at risk in their jobs, while distributing more public praise as a reward. Click here to find a full breakdown of the SCARF model

2. Incorporate mental health services into benefit plans

One in five Canadians will experience mental illness each year, but cost and scheduling prevent many people from seeking therapy. Employees who are experiencing mental stress or illness are prone to leaving work early, taking emergency days off, or leaving their job entirely. 

Help employees deal with the stresses of work and life by adding therapy to their benefit plans. Many employers who already offer this paramedical benefit are planning to increase maximum spends. Employees can look for local in person therapy options, or seek treatment online. 

The benefits of virtual therapy include no commute times, 24/7 scheduling, and a wide range of available specialists. For patients who are dealing with anxiety or depression, the ability to stay comfortable at home is an added bonus. Work-life balance is maintained since patients can seek therapy at whatever time is convenient for them, with no need to travel to a clinic. 

The Sanofi survey specifically notes internet cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) as a growing trend. Companies who make iCBT available report shorter leaves of absence for employees experiencing mental stress. 

3. Mandate mental health training for people managers

While people managers are technically employees themselves, they share their employer’s responsibility to create a psychologically safe work environment. It’s a good idea for managers to undergo mental health awareness training when they ascend to the level of overseeing junior staff. 

There are many organizations that provide this type of managerial training. Mental health training sessions typically include the following curriculum:

  • Training to dispel mental health myths and stigma. 
  • Self assessment techniques. 
  • How to make the workplace accommodating.
  • Recognize changes in employee mental health.
  • How to take action if an employee is struggling.
  • Tips for talking about mental health. 

4. Provide mentorship

Mentorship is about more than forming connections and advancing in your career. It’s also about feeling supported and secure in your job. Companies that set up mentorship programs receive more educated, motivated employees, and see their culture improve from increased collaboration and communication. 

5. Create an open-dialogue culture

The final blow to workplace culture is when employees stop speaking openly and honestly. To prevent this breakdown of communication, let employees know that talking about and seeking help for mental health is encouraged. 

Talking about mental health reduces its stigma, and can provide a lifeline for employees who are struggling more than they openly let on. 

So, why are younger employees so stressed? There are certain generational stressors, but it’s important to remember that each person is an individual. It’s the employer’s responsibility to create a psychologically safe workplace which entails examining culture, providing mental health benefits, and fostering an open-dialogue. With these steps in place, millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and the incoming Gen Z can all work harmoniously and productively. 

If you’re interested in adding virtual care to your employee benefit plans, or want more information about virtual therapy options, please get in touch.

1 The 2020 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey

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