Younger workers, greater depression: study

They’re supposed to be energetic and eager, fresh out of school and ready to take on the world. But young workers are actually more stressed and depressed than older workers, according to new research.

“Over the last three years we’ve seen a tremendous jump in anxiety rates among 20- to 29-year-old employees, and depression rates among employees under 20 years old are higher than in any other age group,” said Rod Phillips, president and CEO of employee assistance provider WarrenShepell.

Of those employees seeking assistance from WarrenShepell, more than 10 per cent of workers under 20 reported symptoms of depression, nearly twice the rate of those between 30 and 49.

This is important for all employers but particularly so for those relying on young workers to drive productivity and success, said Phillips. Those organizations could see their progress severely impeded by depression and anxiety if they are unaware of the degree of the problem and aren’t taking steps to address it.

The service industry, hospitality and retail sectors, in particular, have large numbers of young workers and should be paying close attention, he added.

Much of the focus in recent years has been on stress and depression issues facing baby boomers and workers balancing elder- and child-care responsibilities, said Phillips.

Those issues are indeed very important, but they tend to overshadow issues of younger workers. In part this could be due to the fact that the older cohort is larger, he said. But it could also be because most business leaders are in this group and their personal issues inevitably shape corporate agendas, he said.

There are a couple of possible explanations for elevated levels of reported emotional distress among young people, said Phillips. They may be disappointed by their first work experiences or their inability to land a permanent job. Their expectations aren’t being met and that can cause a lot of anxiety.

“But there is also an increased willingness for young people to come forward and look for support.” This could be interpreted as a positive development, he said. If people realize they have a problem and get help, the problem can be fixed. The longer the problem goes unaddressed the greater the damage.

The high rates of depression among young workers isn’t surprising, said Mel Levine, a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina and author of Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, a book that documents the struggles of young people in the workforce.

“It is a really tough time of life. Young people simply aren’t ready for the workplace because they aren’t being prepared for it,” said Levine.

“We are living in a culture where adolescence is a hard act to follow because it is so full of pleasure and gratification.”

Young people are so coddled it can be very difficult for them to adjust to the rigours of the workplace, he said. This is particularly true for those who excelled in high school, college and university. They are accustomed to constant praise and adulation from teachers, parents and friends, and thus are totally unprepared for the working world, he said.

For instance, new workers often have no appreciation for the political realities of the workplace. The first time a young person goes all out to make a project successful, only to find the supervisor taking all the credit, can be a real eye-opener, he said.

There is no question that leaving school and entering the workforce can be a traumatic, deflating experience for many, he said. But in many cases those difficulties are being addressed ineffectively.

One of the problems is a general tendency to “medicalize” people’s life issues, he said. “People are having a hard time and decide, ‘I must have (attention deficit disorder) or I must be depressed.’ In a way that takes you off the hook and all too often it leads to medication,” he said.

“I think it is a mistake to say they are having troubles in their careers because they are depressed. I think they are depressed because they are having troubles in their careers.”

The implication with the first assumption is medical attention will improve the situation at work, while in fact helping young people to cope at work could lead to a lessening of depression symptoms, he said.

Roughly three per cent of the Canadian population experiences depression. Anxiety disorders affect between one and two per cent, said Phil Upshall, president of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

The society is in the middle of a new study of depression and will have a better picture of the mental health situation for young workers by June. Upshall also said young workers face unique challenges arising because of unmet workplace expectations and a shortage of permanent work.

“The problem is either getting worse or we are recognizing it more, it is hard to say,” said Upshall. It could be that the problem has been there all along, but it has been ignored up until only very recently.

Recent research has shown depression-related problems are one of the largest causes of disability claims, costing the workplace upwards of $33 billion a year, he said.

“They are invisible disabilities, and we have ignored them in the past to the detriment of the economy,” said Upshall.

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