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The hidden mental health challenges burdening younger workers

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A new report from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) indicates that the combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis, and decreasing support for young people has exacerbated pre-existing concerning trends in young people’s mental health, resulting in more and more young people choosing not to disclose pre-existing mental health conditions in the workplace.

Young People’s Mental Health in the Workplace highlights the experiences of young people in work when it comes to mental health, the challenges young workers might be facing and what action is needed, by policy, employers, and wider support networks.

The report is part of the Young people’s future health inquiry which is funded by the Health Foundation. The inquiry is a first-of-its-kind research and engagement project that set out to consider how the experiences of young people today are likely to shape their future health outcomes. The research is led by IES across the four UK nations and is focused on understanding how to improve access to good youth employment and amplifying the voices of young people in research and policy influencing.

The research team recruited a sample of 2,000 young people aged 16-25 drawn from the four UK nations to take part in an online survey. All young people who took part were in some form of employment (full-time, part-time, self-employed or other) at the time of the survey. The survey was undertaken between December 2022 to February 2023. Quotas were used for age, disability, and ethnicity.

Key findings include:

  • Nearly half (46%) of young people surveyed who have a mental health condition do not disclose this to their employer due to feeling uncomfortable doing so. Female respondents are much less likely to disclose compared to male peers.
  • Three in ten young people in the survey had either left a previous job or are planning on leaving their current job as a result of its impact on their mental health (19% and 11% respectively).
  • Over two-fifths of young people in the survey either had a pre-existing mental health condition or challenge when recruited to their job (37%) or started experiencing one after joining (7%).
  • Satisfaction with individual aspects of job quality does not translate into an overall positive impact on health and well-being. Just over half of young people feel satisfied at work (51%), and over one-third feel supported (35%) or enthusiastic (35%). Nonetheless, over one-quarter report feeling exhausted (27%).
  • Young people are generally satisfied with the quality of their work (70% average across all factors). However, over three in ten respondents in our survey reported being dissatisfied with opportunities for career progression (37%), voice and representation (36%), pay (34%), feeling valued for their work (31%), and receiving support to manage their health (30%).
  • Three in ten young people in the survey had either left a previous job or are planning on leaving their current job as a result of its impact on their mental health (19% and 11% respectively). Rates are higher among those who have an impairment, disability or health condition and among those who specifically have a mental health condition.

Commenting on the research, lead author Cristiana Orlando said: “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.

“These challenges raise concerns about the longer-term impact on young people’s future health, and wider life outcomes, as work is a key social determinant of health.

“Furthermore, with a third of young people reportedly leaving jobs because of mental health challenges it raises important questions for employers and policymakers alike, in the face of ongoing labour market shortages and skills and recruitment challenges, with implications for retention and the development of stronger talent pipelines.”

The conclusions from the research highlight six key areas of focus for government, employers, education and support and advocacy organisations to take action, including:

Developing a national strategy and guidelines to support employees’ mental health in the workplace, with a focus on young people: Central government should address the mental health crisis among young people, including young workers, as a matter of priority. This should involve developing an evidence-based national strategy and set of guidelines, outlining specific goals and actions for promoting mental health among employees.

Investing in health and wellbeing support: Central government should support employers with limited resources to invest in providing a better and wider range of health and wellbeing support in the workplace. This can be done through funding for SMEs, to support mental health training for managers, and improve access to services such as occupational health and employee assistance programmes.

Establishing partnerships with local employers, education, and youth support organisations: Local government can play a key role in working with the local community of mental health professionals, employers, educators, and youth support organisations to create integrated approaches to supporting young people’s mental health at work locally, promoting a pipeline for sustained support from education to work.

Fostering a supportive and inclusive workplace culture: Employers should take action to promote open dialogue and reduce stigma around mental health in the workplace, by fostering work environments where young people feel safe and comfortable discussing mental health.

Improving job quality and satisfaction: Employers should take further measures to improve young people’s satisfaction and wellbeing at work. This includes involving young employees in decision-making processes, including the development of mental health support measures.

Empowering young workers around their mental health. Policy, education, youth support organisations, and employers should collaborate to ensure young employees are empowered when it comes to their mental health at work. This includes raising awareness among young people about their rights and right to support when it comes to mental health and mental health at work.

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