More than half of young people take time off work with poor mental health

Older staff were much less likely to take time off work because of poor mental health, the survey found

13th September 2023 about a 3 minute read
“Businesses need to recognise that younger generations are coming in with different anxieties, and adapt to accommodate that group of people, to improve their overall productivity and success.” Dr Nick Taylor, chief executive, Unmind

In the past six months, more than half of 16-24 year olds have taken time off work because of mental health problems, according to a new survey.

Among 16 to 24-year-olds in the workforce, 56% said that they had needed time off because of stress, anxiety and depression. The equivalent figure among staff aged 45-54 was 33%, and among over-55s, it was 12%.

The figures come from a survey of more than 2,000 adults by Unmind, a company that is “on a mission to create mentally healthy workplaces”. The survey also found that a third of the people questioned were considering giving up work altogether because of mental health concerns.

Dr Nick Taylor, chief executive of Unmind, said: “For younger adults the modern workplace can be very isolating. The shift to working from home means they might be working from their bedroom in shared accommodation, on back-to-back video calls. It can be hard to find work-life boundaries.

“There is a perception that young people are soft but actually they have uniquely difficult challenges. Younger people are under the most financial pressure. People in their later years have accumulated wealth and may own a house, which means they can be more resilient in an economic downturn. But if you’re trying to get a foot on the housing ladder, and save up a deposit, that is going to impact wellbeing.”

Taylor said that companies needed to do more to foster a workplace culture that supported better mental health, including providing financial advice and promoting exercise and good sleep: “Businesses need to recognise that younger generations are coming in with different anxieties, and adapt to accommodate that group of people, to improve their overall productivity and success.”

Stress caused by cost-of-living crisis

Employees who owned their own homes were suffering from stress caused by the cost of living and higher mortgage rates, the survey third. One third said that the stress was having a negative impact on their ability to focus at work, while more than a quarter said that they were experiencing more “brain fog” and making more mistakes than normal.

Dr Heather Bolton, director of science at Unmind, said: “These results show the profound impact of the cost-of-living crisis on people’s mental and physical health, relationships and work life. Exposure to chronic stress and uncertainty can increase our vulnerability to unhelpful coping behaviours, mental health difficulties and greater feelings of isolation. Poor mental health isn’t inevitable when exposed to financial difficulty, and employers can play a key role in protecting their workforce.”

Official figures show that 2.6 million people are off work because of illness, and of those, half have depression, stress or anxiety. The government has announced plans to change disability assessments to encourage people who are out of work because of long-term sickness back into the workplace. A report last month by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that people in their late thirties are three times as likely to have mental health problems that limit their daily lives as those in their late sixties, while young people are twice as likely to be claiming disability benefits today as the same age cohort 20 years ago. “Among the oldest cohort, prevalence of poor mental health is low, and relatively stable – or even falling – with age,” the IFS report said. “In fact, the prevalence of poor mental health is higher for each later cohort, and the rate of increase is also faster among younger cohorts.”

FCC Insight

The finding that more than half of young people have taken time off work in the past six months as a result of mental ill health is striking. It chimes with last month’s findings from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that young people are far more likely than older people to have mental health problems, and much more likely to be claiming disability benefit than the same cohort 20 years ago. Whether this is the result of a genuine rise in mental illness among young people, or a greater willingness by a younger generation to admit to mental health problems, is hard to say. Either way, it poses economic problems in a country where the population is ageing and there are gaps in the workforce. There is a case to be made for providing early intervention through, for example, workplace support or digital tools that can help young people manage their mental health more effectively before they reach the stage of having to take time off work.