Mental health among young employees: let’s start doing more to improve workplace practices

Blog posts

25 Mar 2021

Cristiana OrlandoCristiana Orlando, Health Foundation Research Fellow

The link between mental health and work has been highlighted in research over many years, both for its therapeutic and detrimental impacts.  Alongside, awareness has increased around young people facing mental health challenges from childhood through to adulthood, which they carry forward into work. Covid-19 has multiplied the uncertainties they face and has changed the experience of education and work. It may also serve to create impetus for a much-needed debate regarding young people’s mental health at work.  

The most recent Youth Voice Census showed that over one in three young people in work (33 per cent) struggled with their wellbeing in the workplace, while the 2018 Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey showed that 17.2 per cent of employees aged 18 to 20 were suffering from depression and 53.3 per cent experienced sleeping problems. More recent research found that young employees were less likely to disclose mental health problems to employers and more likely to use their holiday instead of taking sick leave, compared to their older colleagues. What’s more, costs to employers of poor mental health, often tied to presenteeism and staff turnover linked to mental health issues, are higher for employees under 25, at 8.3 per cent of average salary compared to an average of 5.8 per cent across all age groups, signalling a notable impact on productivity. Alongside this, the number of young people saying they feel happy and confident around work has been steadily decreasing for over a decade, which is likely linked to the progressive increase in low quality work and underemployment among this age group.  

During a recent conversation with a training provider in mental health and employment, I was struck by how little support there is to develop mental health literacy and support tailored to young people. While there are an increasing number of policy incentives to support employers to recruit young people – given the stark impact of the pandemic on young people’s employment, there is less to inform their practice on effectively supporting good mental health amongst young employees. And talking about mental health often still carries stigma in the workplace. 

There may be a link between this and the high costs to employers of poor mental health among their young employees. IES research looked at the issue of sickness absence amongst all age groups related to mental health at work, and it emerged that poor quality management is often cited as a key reason. The research suggests our current work culture places more value on technical knowledge and hard skills over people management and soft skills, with little attention given to wellbeing. This issue also emerged during a session of the YEG Youth Voices Forum, focused on mental health at work.  Young people discussed concerns about disclosing experiences of poor mental health to their managers for fear of how this would be perceived and how it could impact their future career. They also felt there are seldom adequate structures and resources in place to help managers support employees and understand how to speak about and address mental health issues in the workplace. So what can be done to support mental health awareness and education in the workplace and whose responsibility is it to transform the culture?

Alongside incentives to support youth employment, employers need information and guidance to ensure they can support those young people to thrive at work. The policies encouraging youth employment could also contain considerations of this. Thus, those sourcing and managing vacancies, such as for Kickstart and Traineeships, could cover how employers can support mental health and wellbeing, much as they cover health and safety, when brokering opportunities with businesses.

This is reinforced by some key messages shared by young people, highlighting the importance of good line management to their experience of work, particularly around feeling safe to make disclosures. Practices such as ensuring that young people have access to a trusted person to whom they feel able to open up, checking in with them to ask how they are doing and actively listening to their response, and signposting to wellbeing services, are all important and can contribute to making the workplace a safer and happier place to be.  These considerations are not specific to young people, but are particularly important to those who enter the world of work for the first time.

A culture of support around mental wellbeing is a key aspect of good work, and is pivotal in enabling people to thrive at work, and consequently perform at their best. Young people are reporting that they view a good job as one they find fulfilling, where they feel valued, and that boosts their mental health. Again these factors are not age specific but that doesn’t diminish their importance. The latest labour market data suggests young people are faring very poorly in the labour market and the quality of work generally is falling – with increased levels of precarious work in the recovery. Young people are looking for employment as something that can be a positive addition to their lives. We need to ensure through policy and conversations with employers that there is greater understanding that young people as well as adults need mental health support in the workplace.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.