Helping young employees succeed on the job

Monday, February 17, 2014

Young employees seem to be having a tough time in the workplace. Those who came of age at the turn of the century—called millennials or Gen Y—are reporting mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and burn-out, earlier than expected. This fact has huge implications for employers in North America.

With millennials emerging as the biggest age group since the baby boomers, these young people will become an increasingly important part of the workforce over the next 20 years. Employers need to better understand the issues relating to the psychological health of millennials so they can help their employees, and businesses, become the most successful they can be.

Born in a pressure cooker

“There’s a certain amount of denial, I think, in the workplace,” says Dr. David Posen, M.D., a stress specialist and author of Is Work Killing You?: A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. Having counselled patients on stress and lifestyle management and worked with companies and organizations for 30 years, he observes that, ”People aren’t even aware of how stressed they are. This younger generation, I think, is more attuned to themselves in that way.”

More attuned and candid, millennials share their feelings more easily, discuss what medications they’re on, and what their friends are taking, while “baby boomers would never have talked about this kind of stuff,” notes Dr. Posen.

The millennials are under an unusually high level of pressure. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, they saw how the traditional institutions previous generations had relied on for support, like family, government, and corporations, became much less solid or reliable.

Growing up in a permissive culture

The overworked parents of millennials fostered a more permissive culture that, for example, awarded trophies to all the participants of a track meet and supported leniency with late assignments at school. Coming of age at the end of a recession, millennials faced and continue to face an unemployment rate that’s about double the national average. And they’re loaded down with school debt.

They enter the workplace educated, tech savvy, very self-confident, and brimming with energy. They need social interaction and constant feedback. They expect quick results and rapid promotion at work. Given this mindset, the business environment can be a significant stressor for millennials.

The warning signs businesses should look out for

“When we get highly stressed,” says Dr. Posen, “we tend to lose our insight, our awareness and our judgment… A lot of people aren’t aware of what’s actually happening to them.” That’s why Dr. Posen believes, “It’s incumbent on employers to just keep an eye out without feeling you have to be a social worker or a psychologist.”

The following chart describes some of the signs of stress to look out for:


Signs of Stress in your People

  • Do they appear tired?
  • Are they missing work (absenteeism), making mistakes (especially if they’re good performers), or slipping in their productivity?
  • Do they have frequent colds and sniffles or headaches?
  • Are they atypically forgetful or having problems concentrating?
  • Are they having more difficulty making decisions?
  • Has their problem-solving ability dropped off?
  • Are they less friendly, smiling less, or more abrupt in manner?
  • Have they lost their sense of humour?
  • Are they more withdrawn?
  • Do you note signs of anxiety or nervousness (bouncing knee)?
  • (These signs, of course, may be due to stresses outside the workplace.)

Five tips to help your millennials succeed

These tips for building a healthy psychological environment for millennials would also be beneficial, of course, for employees of all generations.

1. Allow regular time-outs

While it’s a given that people engaged in physical work, like construction or sport, need a time-out, certain workplaces tend to disregard the fact that “the brain is like a muscle,” says Dr. Posen. “It gets tired, too.”

Research shows that the longest we can focus on something intently is about 90 minutes. In certain workplaces, people don’t take breaks, either because they don’t allow themselves to, or they sense that time-outs are frowned upon.

2. Offer flex-time

People in their early 20s don’t get as tired in the early evening and they don’t wake up as early, due to a physiological phenomenon called “sleep-phase delay.” Compared to typical older adults, their rhythms are off by an hour or two. Moreover, young adults need closer to nine hours of sleep than the typical adult average of eight hours. “We’re a sleep-deprived society,” says Dr. Posen. “Most of the symptoms of sleep deprivation are actually symptoms of stress.”

Employers who are rigid about face time, start times, and early morning meetings may not be getting the most out of their people. By offering your staff some flexibility in their hours, you allow people to work in harmony with their natural rhythms. Not only would productivity improve, but so would mood and attitude.

3. Judge performance by outcomes, not by process

When employees work at their natural rhythm, the employer needs to focus on outcomes and results, not on process. So when millennials connect electronically with their social network—an important daily habit woven into the fabric of their lives—they should be able to do so, if it’s done in a disciplined way, without drawing the disapproval of their boss.

4. Don’t lean on people who are struggling

“If employers see people struggling, and they start leaning on them and putting pressure on them, and yelling at them, or whatever… that adds to the problem and makes things worse,” says Dr. Posen.

5. The best treatment is prevention

“A lot of workplace stress is caused by systemic problems that have not been addressed,” writes Dr. Posen. So the first step is acknowledging that the problem exists, and then diagnosing and addressing the root causes.

Asked what one piece of advice he would give to employers working with millennials, Dr. Posen says, “Listen, be respectful, be willing to be flexible.” Millennials bring energy, enthusiasm, a thirst for learning, and a new perspective to the workplace. Millennials seek challenges but don’t want to make work their entire life. “A lot of baby boomers,” Dr. Posen says, “could benefit from that kind of wisdom.”