Navigating young people’s mental health; how to understand and support Gen Z in the workplace

Group of cheerful multiracial colleagues looking at camera of mobile phone while standing together with raised hands and taking self shot for social media

A brief dive into Gen Z’s workplace satisfaction, and how it connects with younger people’s declining mental health. 

The latest generation to enter the workplace is Gen Z, and they are often given a hard time. Considering they haven’t lived through the same “hardships” that previous generations have, and with the world being more comfortable than ever…why is there so much cause for them to complain? There is now even a trend of HR departments favouring older hires over younger counterparts. From Nordic employee wellbeing platform Kara Connect, Tobba Vigfusdottir shares her thoughts on why this generation might be struggling, and how employers can better navigate this new and largely misunderstood section of the workforce.

What is the problem?

People in their 20s are statistically more likely to be off work with ill health than employees in their early 40s. This trend has developed for several reasons, but it predominantly comes down to Gen Z being more likely to struggle with mental health issues. This, in part, is due to having grown up with social media; studies indicate that engagement with social media leads to higher rates of depression, self-harm and suicide. This worrying trend has developed to such an extent that, as reported by the Guardian, UK ministers were just last week discussing banning the sale of mobile phones to children under 16. 

As digital natives, Gen Z are also equipped with the ability to navigate a vast sea of news and information; crucially including insights into equality and workplace conditions. Unlike prior generations, who often adhered to a “grin and bear it” mentality, Gen Z recognises that these approaches no longer make for a comfortable existence. They understand the toll that excessive work can take on their long term health, and are unwilling to compromise their wellbeing for the sake of an entry-level position unless the potential career trajectory is clear. Prioritising their health, many Gen Zers may not necessarily aspire to claim C-suite roles. Besides the career aims, the fact also remains that access to adequate healthcare and mental health support remains a luxury. It is beyond the reach of many young people due to financial constraints and extensive waiting lists within public healthcare systems. 

These problems are often compounded by the response the wider world greets them with. Trivialising Gen Z’s habits and labelling them as “unable to cope with work” disregards the significant societal and economic factors that affect these employees. For example, navigating the move from education to employment whilst trying to keep on top of financial pressures, expectations of success, and higher rates of mental illness. 

The challenges facing young professionals

The problems around Gen Z’s mental health stem, unsurprisingly, from a variety of factors. As mentioned, the rise of social media has had a profound impact, affecting young women more than men. They are exposed to more and more of the same sensational, perfected material. This idea of curated realities and constant connectivity leads to heightened stress levels, and potentially impacting brain development. This phenomenon is evidenced by the aforementioned alarming increases in suicide rates and depression. 

People in general suffering with mental health may consequently also find themselves unemployed or in low-paid jobs. Having been exposed to social media their whole lives, resulting mental health issues often hinder Gen Z’s educational aspirations – whether by affecting concentration, attendance or academic performance. This ultimately limits job prospects. Then, for those who have begun their career, managing workplace stress and maintaining performance can be challenging even when in jobs. This leads to its difficulties, for example in securing advancement opportunities. Despite efforts to reduce stigma, discrimination persists in many workplaces against those who struggle with their mental health.

Strategies for employers

A big caveat for employers is that misunderstood and exploited workers no longer accept being taken advantage of. This generation expects to be treated with more respect. Psychologists are also seeing a great rise in Gen Z having a lower locus of control. This means that they don’t believe that they can impact their own futures, and are more likely to think that outside factors determine their fate – this could be luck, people in higher positions, or their academic success or failure. These factors together have led to a rise in silent quitting, where employees leave the workplace without even telling their line manager. This happens because they either don’t think it makes a difference, or because they are uncomfortable to approach their supervisors. 

Luckily, there are workplace leaders who engage with any discrimination, and seek to push back against this phenomenon and how employees are treated. Here, I outline some of the many ways in which managers, HRs, and bosses can help to support Gen Z – and it is often as simple as recognising the root of the problem and showing understanding. 

Creating a culture of awareness and support is essential. One can establish wellbeing support systems, or promote empathy amongst colleagues, but opening discussions about emotion and coping strategies can help build trust. Equally valid, of course, are those people who don’t immediately feel comfortable being part of something public. 

Comprehending Gen Z’s mindset is key. Employers should recognise the myriad concerns that young people have. This includes, but is not limited to: job security, professional advancement, as well as transparent lines of communication around pay equity and PTO. Different communication styles are needed in companies hiring Gen Z – it is essential for success, both for them and the company, that grievances are aired and workers can explain what is bothering them. Also, it is important to remember that people who are anxious or dealing with mental health problems work better if they are told clearly about the job, benefits and where it can lead. They are not even afraid to ask “what is a job” – and are not looking for the location, or time in the office or at their desk – they want to know what is expected of them, and employers need to be able to explain. 

I have already alluded to Gen Z’s wider education and digital proficiency. Employers should adapt to their preferences by implementing up-to-date tools and messaging platforms. This approach, as well as enhancing efficiency, also demonstrates a commitment to meeting Gen Z’s preferences. Beyond this, employers can go further and actively involve Gen Z in digital transformations. This gives employees confidence; their unique qualities can actively contribute to the work environment. 

The bottom line is that while some corners of the media seem to feel obliged to peddle out the rhetoric that Gen Z’s workplace problems are overplayed, I’d like to emphasise that there has never been a more important time to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. There are wonderful (and successful) initiatives in Nordic countries, aimed at achieving a better work-life balance. The bigger the reach of projects like these, the better. By strategising like this, employers will reap the benefit of supporting their employees, who in turn will be in a better position to support them.

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About the author

Tobba Vigfusdottir is CEO at Kara Connect. Tobba holds an M.Ed in Educational Psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA and a B.Ed. from the University of Iceland, She has worked as a political advisor to the Minister of Education and a project manager at the University of Reykjavík. Tobba is the Vice-Chairman of the National Theatre of Iceland and has sat on numerous public boards, including the Reykjavík Energy Company and 

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