Younger workers are shaping up to be far worse off in the field of work-related mental health than their forebears, according to the latest Global Benefits Attitudes Study from HR solutions provider Willis Towers Watson (WTW).
In a poll of more than 2,800 UK workers, the Study found that millennials are twice as susceptible to stress as their baby-boomer counterparts – with 61% of them experiencing high or above-average stress, compared to 33% in the boomer category. Meanwhile, half of workers in the generation-X bracket are routinely incurring high- or above-average stress.
Other findings, though, reveal some encouraging, generational progress: millennials are far more likely to open up about their anxieties. Some 48% said that they would request the support of family, friends or colleagues in stressful times, compared to 32% of gen-Xers and 21% of boomers. More than a quarter (27%) of millennials would ask for their manager’s help, compared to 18% of gen-Xers and just 6% of boomers. And 41% of millennials would happily seek external support from a trained stress specialist – while only 33% of gen-Xers and 28% of boomers would be prepared to take that path.
WTW wellbeing lead Mike Blake said: “There has been an encouraging growth in awareness around issues of stress and mental health in the workplace, and an increasing number of employers are taking positive action to address these problems. However, the significant variation in stress levels highlights the need for such action, where possible, to be tailored to the requirements of different demographics.”
For example, Blake noted, millennials face a variety of unique pressures: the immediacy and convenience of modern technology makes it harder for them to escape work pressures and they have been shown to strive for perfection more than previous generations. He added: “Since the root causes of stress and mental health issues will differ, so too will the support needs.”
By being more open about their work-related mental health difficulties, what kind of impact could millennials have on their older colleagues?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I have attended many seminars and conferences and read a lot of reports focusing on millennials and their particular needs. But interestingly, in the Untapped Talent research that the Institute did three years ago, we found that age was almost a red herring.
“Our findings revealed that there are unmet needs right across the workplace, and that perhaps the only difference is that younger generations are more willing to articulate them. The various enhancements that younger workers are demanding – for example, recognition, praise, variety and flexible working – don’t really sound like things that will only suit people born after 1982. They are far more universal than that.”
Cooper explains: “in an era of initiatives such as Time to Change, the Institute’s ongoing research projects with Business in the Community, our Mind Culture report and the Princes’ Heads Together campaign, mental health is high on the corporate agenda. That means that these issues are being talked about now in ways that they weren’t 20 years ago.
“People are entering the workforce at a time when staff are having Time to Talk days, and are wearing ribbons that signify that they’re happy to have a conversation with someone who’s struggling – whether that’s with stress, anxiety or depression. As a result, career entrants’ expectations that it’s okay to talk about difficult issues will be that much higher. If they’re engaging in these conversations, and there’s a broad awareness that it’s fine to discuss these subjects, then of course that will impact older workers, too.”
Cooper points out: “There’s one characterisation of millennials that I hear all the time: they’ve been brought up with a lot of positive reinforcement, they’ve picked up great A-levels, a Duke of Edinburgh award, a high musical-instrument grade, gone to a great university and earned a II:i or a First, and then they’ve been recruited by a prestigious employer after meeting stringent entry requirements – so by the time they take on the responsibilities of work, they’ve had very little experience of failure. According to some, that contributes to millennials’ stress and anxiety, because they don’t know how to bounce back.
“But doesn’t it work the same way for every generation? You learn from your experience. Everybody encounters a situation where they fail for the first time. You learn from failure that you can pick yourself up and start again – and that the next time you’re in a situation similar to the one where you came unstuck, you won’t find it as stressful or nerve-wracking.”
Essentially, Cooper adds, the question is not about whether you are 28 or 48. “It’s about whether the culture of the organisation recognises that it’s okay to fail and to bring your mental health worries to work. It’s about whether your managers grasp the importance of thinking about resilience, and understand their role in contributing to stress and anxiety at work. Because it’s certainly the case that managers can do so unthinkingly.
“It’s about having open conversations and listening to the concerns that millennials are articulating and taking them seriously – because while they might seem to be speaking for themselves, they’re in fact speaking for everyone.”
For further, in-depth thoughts on millennials, read the Institute’s Workforce 2020 report from August 2017
For insights on the value of the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute