Young people’s mental health in the workplace: time to bridge the gap

Blog posts

19 May 2023

Cristiana OrlandoCristiana Orlando, Health Foundation Research Fellow

Young people across the UK have been facing increasing challenges over recent years which have affected their mental health, from the wide-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, to an unprecedented cost of living crisis, and progressive cuts in youth services, while the demand for CAMHS has progressively outstripped supply (an ongoing trend from before the pandemic). The combined impact of these challenges has exacerbated pre-existing mental health trends, leading to a mental health emergency, with over one in five of those aged 17-24 now likely to have a mental health disorder and many more experiencing mental health challenges.

Our research for the Health Foundation’s Young People Future Health Inquiry, which we led over three years, during and following the pandemic crisis, involving a large number of young people and employers across the four UK nations, sheds important light on this issue.  Our research with young people found that mental health is a key challenge in relation to their experiences of employment. Over half of young people in our research told us that mental health issues are having an impact on their ability to look for and access work, with rates being higher for those who traditionally face disadvantage including disabled young people and women.

Among young people who already are in work, many report the detrimental effects that low quality work, where they feel overworked and undervalued, has on their mental health due to exhaustion, low mood, and impacts on motivation and confidence. Strikingly, the majority of young people in our research who were in work, reported struggling with anxiety, stress, low mood, confidence and motivation in the workplace. They felt that employers generally do not understand mental health, while also having high expectations for young people’s work experience and job readiness, often raising rather than removing barriers to work, with further negative impacts on young peoples’ confidence and motivation to enter and stay in the labour market.

Our research with employers did indeed highlight that there is still a notable proportion who may have limited awareness of mental health. We found that a quarter of employers have no experience of, and an equal quarter are not aware of, hiring young people with mental health conditions. On the other hand, just over one in ten employers consider physical and mental health key obstacles affecting young people’s access to good work. When comparing these findings to what young people told us, there are some substantial differences in perceptions and experiences. This discrepancy highlights the risk that employers may not always be in touch with the struggles young people experience as they are entering the labour market, and how these impact access to and experiences of work.

There are also many employers who have a strong awareness that young people are struggling with their mental health, particularly as they feel that young workers are increasingly open about their challenges in this area. Despite this awareness, many, particularly in smaller organisations and in the service industries, feel ill-equipped to provide the necessary adjustments. Beyond this, almost all employers report challenges tied to managing young people’s mental health at work due to the diverse and individual nature of mental health. Employers in our research highlighted the importance of the line management relationship, and how managers who are well-trained and sensitive to mental health issues can make a real difference to young peoples’ experience of work and help retain talent. 

Our research has highlighted the extent to which mental health is a key concern and integral experience of young people entering the labour market, while also highlighting an existing gap between young people and employers’ experiences. Effective support is key to bridging this gap, and helping young people access and thrive in work. There are a number of key areas for actions to facilitate this:

  • Improving mental health literacy. A collaborative effort, involving government, mental health and disability advocacy organisations, employers and employee representative bodies, is required to develop a strategy and universal guidelines on supporting employees’ mental health in the workplace.
  • Investing in health and wellbeing support. Government should support employers to invest in providing better mental health support in the workplace, for example through subsidised training for employers with limited resources. This can also be supported by improving links between workplaces and health services, by equipping employers with information and resources to signpost employees to further support.
  • Learning from good practice. There is an array of resources, toolkits, guidance and advice available to employers around good practice to support young people in the workplace, including around supporting young people’s mental health. Employers’ access to this information should be facilitated through an easy-to-access centralised resource hub.
  • Supporting inclusive practices. Employers should support and empower their young employees to safely disclose information on their health, wellbeing or any complex circumstances they may be facing, through equitable and transparent disclosure processes. They should ensure that managers are equipped to address these challenges in sensitive and supportive ways, and that adequate support is in place, such as through adjustments and support plans.

Young people are struggling to make transitions to the labour market and, for those who do, work may not be having the positive impact on their wellbeing that supports them to thrive. Since work is a key social determinant of health, and a healthy working life is a key part of an overall healthy life, employers and policymakers alike have a duty to support young people in the workplace to thrive, by taking action today.

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