It’s time for something completely different when it comes to young workers’ mental health

Diane Lightfoot

By Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer, Business Disability Forum

The news is full of studies of young people, their mental health, and what they want from the world of work. As members of Generation Z (people born after around 1995 who have grown up with social media) join Millennials (1980-1995) in the workplace, a great many employers will be asking the same question: ‘What do young people want?’

This isn’t a question that is easily answered, but one thing is abundantly clear: mental health is a critically important issue for younger workers, both in the general sense (how well they feel) and in terms of specific mental health conditions.

In a study earlier this month[1] one in three teenagers in the UK were found to be experiencing mental ill-health – and many articles have noted the high rates of mental ill-health amongst older Millennials, too, which analysts believe will stay with this generation as it ages. This means that for the foreseeable future a large proportion of our workforce will either have or have had a mental health condition.

Young people have strong views on the roles of employers when it comes to their mental health, too. In our own study of mental health attitudes in 16-24 year olds we found that the vast majority – 91% of a sample of 1,000 people – felt it was the responsibility of an employer to support its employees’ mental health.

So, the question is not whether employers will have to act, but how.

Will employers have to find a new role?

One of the traditional ways that businesses attract employees is the perk, or benefit. These typically range from fun or social (free drinks) to those more geared to health and wellbeing (yoga classes or gym memberships, say) but generally fulfil the role of bonuses or add-ons rather than, being seen as lifelines for employees.

But there are signs that this might be changing.

A survey of employees’ attitudes to different workplace benefits by Perkbox[2] has seen Millennials and Generation Z alike choosing workplace benefits that are geared towards connection, learning new things, meaningfulness, and community – all things consistently linked to good mental health. Extracurricular clubs (such as arts and craft clubs and book clubs) and sports activities are now far outpacing ‘traditional’ perks like training opportunities, free drinks, and even sabbaticals.

To an extent, this harks back to the ways that large employers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries built entire communities for their employees, with social clubs and even their own churches.

Things have come a very long way since then. But the parallel is interesting. It may be that for employers to attract and retain the next generation of talent, they must take a more proactive approach to looking after the health—particularly the mental health—and wellbeing of their staff.

Clearly this means more than offering freebies and discounts – it involves offering workers a supportive space to socialise, develop their extracurricular skills and find fulfilment. This certainly chimes with my own view that the right kind of job can be far more than an occupation but a central part of our identity.

More than just a perk

Of course, to ensure the needs of staff are met,, such schemes must be backed up by both organisational culture and practical support to employees.

If, as our studies indicated, 91% of young people wanted to discuss mental health, but 63% felt unable to do so at work, it is clear that more needs to be done.

This means equipping managers with proper awareness of mental health and mental health conditions, and having robust policies and practical procedures in place to respond to individual needs. It also means making concerted efforts to challenge and break the stigma about mental health, so that employees feel able to ask for the support they need.

Changing the conversation about mental health in the workplace takes a whole-organisation approach; a top-to-bottom response to mental health by everyone from senior managers, to HR, to team leaders, to emotional support available for every member of the workforce.

For more information and resources on how to meet the mental health needs of employees, see Business Disability Forum’s 10-point strategy for stress and our Resources pages.

[1]‘One in three young people suffering from mental health troubles’, The Guardian, 18 October 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/18/one-in-three-young-people-suffering-mental-health-troubles-survey-finds (accessed 29 October 2018)

[2] Perkbox, ‘The Great Perk Search’: https://www.perkbox.com/uk/resources/library/interactive-the-great-perk-search (accessed 29 October 2018)

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