Young employees: the balance of care & paternalism

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Young employees crave a culture of care, where they can express themselves in honest conversations. If employers get it right, they lay firm foundations for success. But, a challenge is striking the balance between the need to be caring, not stepping over the mark and being perceived as too paternalistic…. We asked experts for their advice…

If ever there was a time to practice your empathy, compassion and listening skills – key to fostering a culture of employee wellbeing – then it’s in your daily interactions with your young colleagues.

The Holy Grail in the wellbeing industry is for employees to “flourish” but young employees, especially those entering the workforce currently, are doing the exact opposite; they are are getting by, languishing or even struggling, with many stats and anecdotes to prove it.

Our recent poll at the start of our keynote webinar with AXA Health, for example, showed that, overwhelmingly, most people felt young employees were the group flourishing the least.

Young employees are struggling: no wonder!

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute (the definition of empathy) and it’s not hard to see why they are in such a precarious place.

The world is a more unsettled, scary place than it’s ever been. There’s a cost of living crisis. A war in Ukraine. Political instability. The ever-present threat of climate change… to name just a few massive global sources of insecurity.

As Harvard Business Review says, there’s even a “trendy managerial acronym” to describe the environment we’re living in these days: VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

Overwhelm is baked into young lives today

On top of these macro-trends, young people are having to deal with tech-induced insecurity in their daily lives, due to always-on social media, which causes them to constantly compare and (often) despair.

Many of them are also having to commute long distances, deal with personal budgets for the first time, as well as isolation from their peers, who they see less often due to having a job – all while trying to “find” themselves. It’s no wonder many of them – like one attendee of our recent webinar on ‘flourishing mind health for the whole workforce’ – admit to feeling “lost”.

Societal expectations are causing mental chaos

Indeed, AXA’s Health’s 2023 Mind Health Study also also identifies younger adults’ wellbeing as one of the main areas of concern. Spokesperson, Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead, AXA Health, explains that “societal expectations” are a huge driver of poor mental health, “with what other people think and expect of them a massive drain for young adults”.

Oh, and on top of all this, they’ve just lived through a global pandemic at a pivotal time in their development, when many missed out on essential experiences and milestones.

Are you labelling your young employees as snowflakes? Don’t!

More than ever, young employees need support and compassion. Instead, stories abound of younger generations, especially millennials, being labelled at work as “snowflakes” lacking resilience, “entitled”, “too woke” or “mouthy”.

Enlightened, emotionally intelligent line managers understand that it’s imperative that we look behind any behaviour and be curious about what it’s actually communicating.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

Young people need help with soft skills

Hannah Pearsall, Head of Wellbeing, Hays, for example, has observed young people joining her workforce carefully (note the word “care”). She believes that these employees are craving social connectivity, and that the pandemic has stunted their opportunities to develop important “soft skills” which help us connect well with others:

“We’re seeing people joining the workforce with good technical abilities but a real lack of soft skills, which makes it incredibly difficult for them to transition into the workplace. I’m talking about communications skills outside things like Whatsapp and email. I’m talking about picking up the phone and talking to people directly.”

Businesses have a duty of care to do more

Pearsall also reflects on the business’s role here, and takes responsibility for potentially contributing to the problem or, at least, not helping it:

“Over lockdown, when everyone was at home, we were really conscious of the importance of social connectivity and organising online activities like coffee breaks and games. But, as we’ve moved to hybrid, perhaps we’ve let that drop off the radar a bit and we need to focus more on it again.”

Arti Kashyap-Aynsley, Global Head of Wellbeing & Inclusion, Ocado Group, absolutely recognises the lack of soft skills that Pearsall talks about. In fact, looking behind the behaviour and flexing her well-developed empathy skills, she actually believes this is why some young workers acquire the reputation of being “entitled and outspoken”:

They’re not entitled; they’re struggling

“They’re experiencing all these things happening in the world, with a massive sense of overwhelm baked in, then they come into a work environment that they are not sure how to fully navigate. They are used to having more guidance and support, and so the autonomy of the working environment can sometimes cause behaviour that is more outspoken or demanding, but inevitably that is all caused by them not knowing how to fully navigate the world around them. This will be the case unless we give them the tools to have the conversations they need to have.”

When she says young employees often don’t know how to “navigate” the workplace, she gives examples like not knowing how to dress appropriately, or how to address line managers.

They need support in managing emotions at work

If a young employee does come across as entitled or outspoken, Kashyap-Aynsley urges line managers to consider what they could be needing. To her, it could easily be that their reaction is actually saying “please help me figure out how I can explain and talk about what I’m feeling”. Increasingly, because of the challenges young people are navigating, employers are providing skills training that goes far beyond the traditional remit of their practical work needs, but actually caters for their emotional needs.

In her former pastoral role at Deloitte, she spent much time equipping junior talent to build their confidence and emotional intelligence. One of the most effective ways was by getting them to design their own “personal manuals” which could be used as a tool to facilitate better conversations with colleagues, especially line managers, and foster better understanding. The manual included answering questions like ‘how do I work best?’ or ‘what are the things you need to know about me?’.

Care vs paternalism

Of course, one of the biggest challenges for employers here, and trickiest balances to get right, is showing care without being perceived as too paternalistic. As a coach and mother, Kashyap-Aynsley admits that this is a “really hard one” which she has “struggled with”.

The greatest learning she’s had is that, while you have to “meet them where they are” which might be facing a developmental gap, “that doesn’t mean you go into a parent/child type dynamic”. She adds:

Don’t fall into parent/child dynamic

“I constantly come back to the fact that we may be from different generations but we are all adults and we are on a level playing field. In my experience, it’s not that younger employees are ever ill-intended, it’s that they have learned to be quite vulnerable and raw and wear everything on their sleeves. Then they come into a structured environment that requires a balance between being your authentic self and finding a level of professionalism. That’s the balance they struggle with and why they often love to have a structure to have these conversations.”

Oluyomi Okunowo, SVP, Total Reward and People Operations at Wella Company, also relates to challenge of treading the fine line between “being paternalistic and showing care”. He believes that the language you use is crucial to convey that you are giving them options and they have agency, rather than being dictated to:

No more command and control

“They don’t want you ‘in’ their business but they want you to be transparent, honest and give them choices. At the same time, they want to own those choices. If they feel they are trying to be controlled, they push back. You have to reflect this in the language you use and the way you present programmes.”

As a line manager, effectively connecting with, and supporting younger employees, often comes down to being courageous in the conversations you have with them. Leadership expert Brene Brown advocates that rather than seeking to be the “hero”, this is about accessing your own inner strength and speaking from the heart; putting yourself out there, honestly and as yourself with all your vulnerabilities too (which they will find reassuring) despite the risk and uncertainty about the outcome.

Line managers & vulnerability

One manager who shows this kind of courage in conversations with young employees, particularly around their mental and emotional health, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Save the Children UK, Lucy Vallis.

She is concerned that young people can sometimes pathologise normal emotions because they’re feeling vulnerable, and been bombarded by mental health narratives in the media, and at work. This may sometimes lead them to come to a line manager and say “I’m depressed” or “I’ve got anxiety” or another condition they’ve heard about.

Young people are self-diagnosing, sometimes incorrectly

Vallis has had the situation where a young employee has come to her and self-diagnosed after googling, a growing phenomenon, with research showing that people between the ages of 18 and 24 are twice as likely to have a self-diagnosed mental health condition than those over the age of 45.

“Sometimes in this situation, I think they come to me because they need to get heard,” she says. “In these cases, I listen and then I often tell them that what they are feeling is normal. It might be that they’ve just had an argument with their line manager, or had a bad end of year review. They feel a bit angry and tearful. I reassure them that these feelings are normal, and OK, and not necessarily evidence of a mental health condition.”

The power of listening

Of course, it’s admirable and to be celebrated that we have opened up the mental health conversation so much. However, with young people in particular, we need to be very mindful that what they may need more than anything is help plugging their skills gaps, that may well include guidance on self-acceptance and how to handle their emotions and we shouldn’t make assumptions about where they are at on this scale.

The power of really listening, hearing and validating an individual’s experience should never be underestimated. This may feel like too ‘small’ a thing to do, when faced with a young person who is struggling and who you feel compelled to help – but these small, consistent acts experienced at work could be the biggest, most powerful thing we can do to help them learn how to start flourishing.

Lucy Vallis, Oluyomi Okunowo and Arti Kashyap-Aynsley are all speaking at our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

You might also like:



Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.