Nadiya Hussain is one of Britain’s most famous chefs. Since winning The Great British Bake Off in 2015, she has hosted or contributed to a wide variety of cooking and other popular television shows in the United Kingdom. More recently, however, she has also become known for publicizing the mental health struggles, especially with anxiety, that have been part of her life for years.
The story of Hussain, who is now in her mid-thirties, highlights a critical issue: The youngest adults in the workforce today, those 18 to 30 years old, are particularly affected by mental health challenges and are also the least prepared to deal with them. Companies can and should step up to help them.
The findings from our surveys of 3,884 UK workers revealed that by the time they are 30 years old, 95% of them have been touched by mental health challenges — either their own, or those of a friend, family member, or colleague. Three out of four have experienced personal challenges. Just under half have had suicidal thoughts or feelings.
Accenture also found that workers aged 18 to 30 perceived almost twice as much pressure in their lives as their more senior peers. They’re more likely to be worrying about debt or struggling to pay their bills, which adds to their stress. And they are more reluctant than their older peers to let their employers know when they’re having problems.
These same workers are also significantly under-prepared to handle work-associated pressures or address mental health challenges. While schools and universities are stepping up training efforts, four in 10 of workers under 26 reported they had received no information or advice about taking care of their mental health before entering the workforce as part of their education. (Only two in 10 workers over the age of 40 reported that they have received training.)
The financial case alone provides a compelling reason for companies to take action in addressing this need: In 2017, an independent review commissioned by the British prime minister put the annual cost to UK employers of poor mental health in workers at between £33 billion and £42 billion ($44.6 billion and $56.7 billion).
But increasingly, businesses are also looking at mental health in the wider context of building more inclusive and diverse workplace cultures. And our study found that, in organizations that emphasize the importance of mental health, employees of all ages are almost four times more likely to say that work has a positive influence on them. Moreover, young employees were almost 37% less likely to have faced a recent mental health challenge, but twice as likely to say they can or could cope with one at work. (Detail on the method we used to identify companies with cultures more and less supportive of mental health can be found here.)
Few of the employers we spoke to during the course of our research were explicitly focusing on young workers’ mental health. And, even if your organization does offer explicit support, many of your employees may not be aware of it. Fewer than half of the people in our study could say with certainty that their workplace has a program or offers support focused on mental health. Worse, most workers — the youngest in particular — fear that disclosing their struggles, or seeking help, will harm their professional reputations.
More needs to be done. Here are three actions we see leading organizations taking to get things moving faster in the right direction:
Onboarding. Young people often enter the workforce with little sense of what is about to hit them. It’s important to help them make the transition to a kind of pressure many have never faced before.
Boots, a UK health, beauty and pharmacy company (and Accenture client), regularly reaches out to secondary schools, colleges, and local universities. It runs workshops and gives talks that help potential recruits better understand — and prepare for —the workplace, and taps its own younger employees as leaders of these events to ensure that the messages resonate. Boots also helps young hires to build skills and confidence and better adjust to their new responsibilities through group discussions and workshops. Early-career tutors are trained to support these workers and are, in turn, supported by others; they know how to escalate any concerns to a colleague who has had specific training on mental health issues.
Training. Once people have been onboarded, they need help understanding how to manage the stresses and strains of the job. The key here is to co-design solutions.
The international law firm Allen & Overy has many trainees, most of whom join on a two-year contract. Working with and led by the younger cohort, senior managers created a program that focuses on the human element of life as a lawyer. Trainers equip new lawyers with “practical resilience skills and advice” to help them achieve a healthy work-life balance in a high-pressure environment. The lessons include how to set and stick to boundaries between personal and work time — a message made more powerful because it comes from people who have “been there.”
One recent pilot initiative coming out of this process involves “protected evenings.” It allows trainees to flag nights that are important to them, giving them more control over their schedules. Trainees also publish a newsletter every two weeks that helps address key concerns on their agenda.
Senior leaders. Be open about the challenges you’ve faced. Be willing to show vulnerability. When you speak up, not only are you helping struggling younger workers realize that they’re not alone, you are also giving them some language to use to describe their own experiences.
In November at This Can Happen, the UK’s largest mental health conference, Paul Feeney spoke up. Feeney is CEO of Quilter, a wealth management company in London. For him, making it personal is a key to the solution. “In our industry, we have a saying, ‘Don’t take it personal.’ We should make it personal. People need to know it is OK to not be OK. The best thing to do is open up and talk about it.”
During the UK’s 2019 Mental Health Awareness week, Simply Business, a business insurance company, put up an internal story-sharing site. To jump-start the dialogue, many of the company’s senior executives wrote about their own struggles with mental health. The thread grew over the course of the week, bringing in many employees who had never previously spoken openly these issues.
When public figures like Nadiya Hussain and Paul Feeney describe their mental health challenges, others (including me) tend to call them courageous. That’s true at the moment. But it shouldn’t be. The more we can do to reduce the stigma of this topic and bring it further out of shadows into the mainstream, the less will people need to be brave to talk about their experiences. And they will be happier, more confident, and more productive at work and beyond.
Barbara Harvey is a managing director at Accenture Research Barbara, where she focuses on employees’ mental health and equality in the workforce.
In Harvard business review
Author Barbara Harvey, 29 janvier 2020