Younger millennial and Gen Z employees are three times more likely to experience psychological distress than those over forty.
Emerging adulthood (18-29 years) is marked by change and self-exploration, but numerous characteristics of this phase in life increase individuals’ vulnerability to mental health problems. Naluri’s data on the mental health status of 8,000 members over the past two years reflects this and indicates that, in terms of psychological well-being, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted adults under 30 compared to older age groups. Luckily, many risk factors driving age differences in mental health are malleable, and critical prevention strategies coupled with timely interventions can promote positive psychological health.
Generational differences in the state of mental health
An analysis of the data collected using the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale shows that the number of high-risk individuals – those experiencing severe and very severe symptoms in at least one dimension of mental health – is 3.6 times higher among 20- to 29-year-olds, at 39.5%, compared to adults 50 and above, among whom the rate is 10.8% (Figure 1). Chi-square tests, which test whether categorical variables are related or independent from one another, indicate that each age group, except the 50 and over group, has a significantly lower number of individuals at high risk than the age group below (X2s = 55.93 to 345.76, ps < 0.001, ɸs = 0.12 to 0.29).
Moreover, an examination of the rates of psychological distress over time shows that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health has been most significant on 20- to 29-year-olds (Figure 2). While rates of high-risk individuals increased significantly in this age group from 33.6% before the pandemic (i.e., August 2019 to 10th March 2020) to 41.8% since the pandemic was declared (i.e., 11th March 2020 to July 2021; X2 = 12.94, p < .001, ɸ = 0.075), these rates decreased in the three other age groups, although the differences were not statistically significant (X2s = 0.75 to 2.65, ps > 0.104, ɸs = 0.028 to 0.033).
A closer look at the individual dimensions of mental health (depression, anxiety, and stress) indicates that, at extremely severe levels, depression is 7.1x more prevalent in the youngest age group compared to the oldest, while anxiety and stress are 4x and 3.7x more prevalent, respectively, in the youngest age group (Figure 3). In contrast, at severe levels, stress is 7.3x more prevalent in 20- to 29-year-olds compared to 50+ year-olds, and anxiety and depression are 2.4x and 3.7x more prevalent.
Depression and stress are, therefore, the biggest drivers of the age differences in psychological distress, while the prevalence of anxiety is less disparate between age groups. This is reflected in the fact that many risk factors underlying age differences in mental health are most likely to impact depression and stress.
The role of resilience and sense of control
Emerging adults (those between adolescence and stable adulthood, or 18 to 29 years) tend to have less developed coping skills and lower personal resilience to deal with the challenging circumstances of emerging adulthood (Leipold et al.), which include heightened instability and uncertainty. Coping strategies are the efforts one makes to manage the demands one perceives as exceeding their resources. At the same time, resilience encompasses a constellation of characteristics that allow individuals to adapt to their stressors.
Coping strategies that involve avoiding active confrontation of problems, such as dissociating from the stressor or wallowing in negativity without addressing the stressor, are maladaptive and are associated with poorer outcomes. In contrast, adaptive strategies involve direct action and attempting to deal with stressors, such as seeking social support or making efforts to solve a problem.
As individuals mature and encounter situations that provide opportunities to learn and acquire personal and social coping skills through experience, their coping strategies evolve towards more adaptive styles. Without these skills, however, younger adults are likely to experience stress during challenging circumstances, especially acutely.
The job roles that emerging adults occupy may also put them at increased risk of psychological distress. Higher-level professional and managerial staff have a lower tendency for depression and anxiety than general workers (Razali et al., 2019; Yeoh et al.), which may be due to differences in decision-making power. Perceived lack of power can lead individuals to hold an external locus of control (i.e., perceive that external forces determine their circumstances), which is associated with poorer mental health, particularly depression (Krampe et al.).
Feelings of powerlessness can also be exacerbated by involuntary changes in one’s work and relationships, which are frequent in emerging adulthood. This is especially relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the unemployment rate among under-25s in Malaysia was reported to be almost four times that among older workers (Cheng), leading to high job insecurity in this age group. The sense of lack of control fuelled by job insecurity can, in turn, negatively impact job satisfaction and well-being (Elst et al.).
The younger generation may also have been more negatively affected than older adults by the move to remote work during the pandemic. Interpersonal development opportunities, including networking and practical training, are especially important for building young professionals’ confidence and their workplace relationships. Individuals beginning new roles remotely during the pandemic are also especially vulnerable to the isolation caused by the lack of in-personal socialisation in remote contexts. These individuals are more likely to be in the 20- to 29-year-old age group.
Employees working remotely are also more likely to experience workplace fear of missing out, which is associated with higher work burnout rates (Budnick et al., 2020). Workplace fear of missing out refers to the fear that one might miss valuable career opportunities when away or disconnected from work, and it encompasses both relational exclusion (fear that professional relationships may suffer) and informational exclusion (fear of being uninformed of relevant task information; Budnick et al., 2020). Individuals beginning new roles remotely during the pandemic are especially vulnerable to the social and information isolation of remote contexts. These individuals are more likely to be in the 20- to 29-year-old age group.
The differing importance of in-person work across generations is evidenced by a recent survey reporting that younger employees are more likely to want to return to the office full-time than older workers, who prefer a hybrid working model (Totem). The absence of professional development and socialisation opportunities may lead to low confidence, as well as a depressed mood, and may hinder the development of adaptive coping skills.
Managing a multigenerational workforce
Given the pandemic's impact on younger workers’ mental health and the effects of employee mental illness on productivity (Hassard et al.), organisations must provide psychological support to their employees.
Concerning prevention, employers can help promote the acquisition and development of adaptive coping skills by providing young adults with adequate opportunities and support, for example, from mentors, to acquire these skills. Resilience training can significantly increase resilience and improve mental health and well-being outcomes, including depression, stress, and anxiety, as well as psychosocial outcomes such as self-efficacy and work satisfaction (Robertson et al.).
For all teams, and particularly those working remotely, employers should strive to foster an encouraging and nurturing environment that emphasises connectedness between employees. This can help combat isolation among employees and provide the necessary social support to buffer the impacts of work stress on psychological distress. Team leaders should be trained to spot early signs of burnout and disengagement and proactively manage the energy levels and focus of each team member by creating blocks of time for uninterrupted individual work (without any meetings) and explicitly checking that work that needs to continue after-hours is limited to 1-2 evenings a week only.
Younger workers can also benefit from leaders and managers moving from traditional command-and-control authoritative styles to a coaching style that uses reflective questioning to encourage thinking and creativity and fosters a culture of psychological safety that makes it OK for team members to raise problems even if they do not have a solution.
Given that a greater sense of purpose can reduce the impact of stressors on one’s effect (Hill et al., 2018), leaders can also harness tremendous energy and temper the distress associated with fear of missing out, among their younger team members by nurturing a strong sense of purpose and commitment in their teams.
The impact of working remotely can further be addressed by strengthening the support provided by the organisation to its workers, for example, by improving managerial support, working conditions, and fairness. By increasing perceived organisational support (employees’ subjective feeling that their organisation cares about their welfare and work dedication), these strategies can also cushion the impacts of high job demands on well-being, therefore reducing the likelihood of burnout (Xu & Fang)
Due to the enduring nature of the psychological illness, early identification and timely intervention among individuals already experiencing high levels of psychological distress are also crucial. Moreover, the provision of accessible mental health resources is critical from a recruitment and retention perspective, as more than half of Gen Z employees report the availability of these resources is a criterion they consider when selecting a job or deciding to stay with an organisation (Coe et al., 2021). Employers should therefore facilitate access to professional treatment for staff and normalise help-seeking to destigmatise mental illness in the workplace.
Naluri has developed a mental health advocacy programme to help organisations create a workplace culture where employees are trained to identify early signs and symptoms of burnout, depression or anxiety, are taught how to approach and support a colleague who may be in distress, and how to escalate when a situation is critical. It is important to shift the burden of seeking help from the individual employee feeling overwhelmed and distressed and make it a collective organisational responsibility to look out for and support each other.
Through AI technology and its team of experienced psychologists and counsellors, Naluri is optimally positioned to identify individuals at risk of mental health problems and to provide interventions to those in need. Naluri’s proactive and personalised approach ensures that individuals receive a level of care tailored to their needs: self-guided learning or long-term structured support from healthcare professionals.
For employers whose diverse and multi-generational workforces can have highly individualised needs, Naluri’s comprehensive employee assistance programmes provide an effective, accessible, and affordable digital solution to ensure all employees are at their best.
For more information on supporting your employees’ mental health and transforming your organisation into a healthier work environment, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.