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How a mental health crisis is stagnating career opportunities for Gen Z

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Gen Z's poor mental health halts job opportunitiesLaylaBird - Getty Images

It started with a little breathlessness in the morning, before it developed into a heavy, chest tightening feeling. Then, a racing heartbeat. Before long, Samantha found herself crippled by an anxiety so severe she would be physically sick at the thought of leaving the house. It made heading into her job as a bank clerk nigh on impossible.

“It was a details-orientated role,” Samantha, who also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), tells Cosmopolitan UK. “And whenever I was in work, it was such a struggle to talk to new people.” While Samantha’s immediate boss was supportive, and tried to give her the space to calm down if her anxiety did strike in the office, his bosses weren’t anything of the sort. “They basically told me to suck it up,” she says. “In the end, things got so bad, my doctors signed me off for eight weeks. Once I used up all my additional sick leave, and nothing improved, I had no choice but to leave.”

Samantha is just one of many people in their early twenties who find themselves unable to work due to poor mental health. A worrying report published by the Resolution Foundation last month only shows just how deeply rooted this problem is: as many as one in 20 young people are ‘economically inactive’ due to ill-health – a higher proportion out of work compared to counterparts in their 40s. The report signposts the increasingly worsening mental health of those in their early twenties is another significant factor, with data revealing young people now have the poorest mental health of any age group - a reversal from two decades ago when they had the lowest incidence of common mental disorders.

Between 2021 and 22, 34% of young people aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. It’s a dramatic increase from two decades ago, when that figure stood at 24%. So, what is fuelling this steep decline in young people’s mental wellbeing? It’s easy to point the blame at the coronavirus pandemic, with the isolating experiences of lockdown seeing young people forced to miss schooling, work opportunities and socialising. A study from the University of Oxford found higher levels of depression and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in teens after lockdown when compared to before. But it’s reductionist to lay the blame purely at the pandemic’s door, with numerous other factors also playing a part in a mental health crisis that’s afflicting people in their early twenties.

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“Of course, there’s severe mental illnesses, but for most people, mental health is a combination of things,” Alexa Knight, Director of England at the Mental Health Foundation, tells Cosmopolitan UK. “It can hinge on access to good housing, financial security, solid education and trusted relationships. We’re seeing a visible deterioration of these things amongst the younger generation.” The current economic landscape is having far-reaching consequences, explains Knight. “We’re seeing young people leaving school with poor mental health, coming into the workplace with low wages, housing shortages and record high rents. Social media puts pressure on young people to be constantly out and enjoying themselves, and we also have constant access to quite harrowing images of news and current events. It’s the perfect storm.”

While having poor mental health is devastating just at an individual level, it’s having a significant impact on our economic recovery. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that poor mental health is costing the economy £118 billion a year – around 5% of the UK’s gross domestic output (GDP). It’s a particularly dire state of affairs, with Britain falling into a technical recession in the final quarter of 2023 and being the slowest G7 country to recover to pre-pandemic economic levels. For economist Charlie McCurdy, who co-wrote the Resolution Foundation report, it’s a problem that’s going to get far worse. “Our research found the longer you’re out of work with sickness when you’re younger, the harder it is for you to join the labour market in later life,” he says. “It has a scarring impact on confidence and then leaves people not equipped to get on the working ladder.”

It’s something Vincent, 19, is struggling with. Having been diagnosed with autism aged 10, Vincent, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, went on to struggle with eating disorders and depression. “I feel like teachers didn’t pay attention to it, because I was getting good grades,” they tell Cosmopolitan UK. Things reached fever pitch with Vincent attempted to overdose during mock exams, with their anxiety rocketing in sixth form. “I would just have panic attacks every morning before school,” they explain. “The jump between GCSE and A-Levels was just so demanding. I was missing weeks and weeks of school at a time and missing so much content.”

Forced to leave the school system, Vincent took a year off to try and straighten out their mental health – to no avail. Now, they are on long-term sick/disability leave, in receipt of Personal Independence Payments (a benefit for people with long-term health conditions that can pay a maximum £101.75 a week) and living in supported living accommodation, with little hope of getting a job that suits their needs. “I have my GCSEs, but I don’t have any real hope of getting a level three qualification,” they explain, “I can’t go back to sixth form now, because I’m 19. I’d love to pick up where I left off, but I feel like I’ve hit an end, that I’ve failed and it’s impossible to retry.”

Vincent, who previously dreamed of becoming an economic adviser, also worries about the lack of flexibility from employers who may be unwilling to make reasonable adjustments to cater for their diagnoses. “I still think there’s the perception from employers that if you need to take time off, you’re lazy,” they explain. “Why would they hire me if they can hire someone else who doesn’t need that time out? You’d constantly have to feel the need to prove yourself, and you’d burn out in the long run – it feels like a vicious cycle.”

young woman sad at a work desk
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Mariella agrees that more flexible workplaces are needed to cater for those who struggle in office environments. Having been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and now awaiting a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), she found her time working inhouse difficult. “I just found it so monotonous, and I couldn’t concentrate,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. After taking redundancy, Mariella then decided to pursue work as a freelance content creator, and found the flexibility suited her more: “If I need to take time for my mental health, I can,” she says. “The pandemic shows the world has changed – we’re better suited to more flexible approaches. I don’t see why they’re not being more widely implemented.”

Many businesses have adjusted to hybrid working models, with only 30% of UK companies working fully on-site today, compared to 57% before the pandemic. However, as McCurdy rightly points out, hybrid working is not an option for people working in areas such as retail or hospitality: occupations more proportionally held by younger workers. More than half (56%) of Gen Z work or have worked in retail, while there’s been a 5% rise in under 25’s heading into the hospitality industry. As a result, mental health training in these sectors is even more vital, he says. “We need to see better management practises and mental health training for all employers. In our research talking to young people, what really stood out is how they want to be treated – they don’t want to be spoken to as if they’re robots. Having respect and understanding of mental health between employees and employers needs to be a priority.”

But waiting until people enter the working world to give them effective mental health support is too little, too late: according to the Mental Health Foundation, half of all mental health problems are established by age 14, creeping up to 75% by age 24. If good habits, robust support and solid routines have not been established in our early years, it’s of little surprise that those plagued with mental illness crash out into economic inactivity. “Mental health training and understanding needs to be far more robust in schools,” Knight explains. “Teachers and students need better mental health literacy, as well as access to early intervention support, to aid children who are showing symptoms of a mental disorder, or who may be at a higher risk of developing one.”

“The Resolution Foundation report has also made clear the link between mental health problems and young people missing school,” adds Nil Guzelgun, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind. “Young people need support both in schools and colleges and through early support hubs in the community, particularly in areas of high deprivation.”

McCurdy agrees school should introduce the building blocks of support for young people. The Resolution Foundation’s report found a significant link between mental health, education and employment: one third young non-graduates with a mental health condition were unemployed, compared to 17% of those unemployed with a degree. “There is no uniform mental health support at schools across the country – how much support you get is a lottery,” he explains. “It is essential that support is there for young people in compulsory education. That way, if they do struggle with their mental health, they can remain at school and get qualifications needed.” However, laying responsibility with teachers also seems, practically, unworkable, with so many educators feeling overworked as is. In a survey of 18,000 educators by the National Education Union, 48% of teachers believe their workload is ‘unmanageable all or most of the time’, as well as more than a third of teachers saying they are stressed ‘80% or more’ of the time.

So what can be done? Knight argues proper investment is needed in all sectors. “A lot of children charities are calling for initiatives like youth support hubs, which aren’t in schools and don’t need a clinical referral – where young people can drop in and get support for anxiety and depression,” she says, adding that the need for investment goes well beyond early intervention services. Knight argues that investment is needed in society at a macro level, in areas such as housing, so young people feel as if they have something to go to work for: “Mental health is so linked to inequality and poverty. Investing in these sectors will see the quickest and most positive impact.”

With things unlikely to improve suddenly for Generation Z, we’re still a long way off before the society-wide mental health crisis, and the impact that has on employment, is abated. But labelling younger workers as ‘snowflakes’ or ‘Generation Sicknote’ is merely misunderstanding the problem at large. “To say that is to ignore the facts,” Knight says. “No other generation has faced the same combination of factors as young people today has. We’re in a completely different storm.”

If you have been affected by the content of this article, please reach out to Mind for support. Further information and contact details can be found here. You are not alone.

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