Why Gen Z’s mental health is forcing them out of work, according to experts

And no – it's not because they're 'snowflakes'

Young man mental health. (Getty Images)
'Instead of questioning whether young people are suffering from mental health, we should be addressing the problems,' say experts.

A recent report found people in their early 20s are more likely to be out of work because of ill health – of which mental health is a huge contributing factor – than those in their early 40s.

This is a "radically different picture to that of the past", the Resolution Foundation report says, "when 25 years ago, there was a clear pattern that the older you were, the more likely you were to be not working because of ill health".

But with poor mental health rising among young people (now the age group with the poorest mental health), this can affect education and lead to them being both out of work and in lower-paid jobs.

One in 20 young people were economically inactive due to ill health in 2023. Meanwhile, in 2021/2022, 34% of young people aged 18-24 reported symptoms of a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, compared to 24% in 2000.

Here, Yahoo UK digs a little deeper to understand what's driving these stats and what we can do about it.

Why are more young people suffering from mental health problems?

An elevated view of a concerned looking woman looking down at her mobile phone device. Space for copy.
The reality is it's difficult to be a young person right now. (Getty Images)

"Over the past few years since the pandemic there's been a really sharp increase in both symptoms and diagnosable mental health conditions among young people," says Adam Jones, policy and public affairs manager at YoungMinds.

As well as the impact of the pandemic during key developmental years for young people, Jones reminds us of the many other contributing factors: "The cost of living crisis, the climate crisis, domestic politics and conflicts overseas, a technological revolution making young people more aware of instability, academic pressure, money worries and a mental health system that can't meet demand."

Individual circumstances have to be taken into account too: "Relationship breakdowns, family breakdowns, abuse, bullying, and other forms of trauma that can have a profound impact on young people's journey into adulthood".

Tobba Vigfusdottir, a psychologist, former advisor to the Icelandic minister of education and CEO and founder of Kara Connect (a market leader of mental health in the workplace in the Nordics, already allowing British organisations to offer mental health specialists), adds, "Research shows the advent of social media has significantly altered the mental health landscape, disproportionately affecting young women.

"The constant connectivity and exposure to curated realities on social platforms have contributed to heightened stress levels, detrimentally influencing brain development."

"Talking about mental health has helped destigmatise it and made people feel they can reach out for support, which is positive," says Jones. "But there have been so many structural factors that have made being a young person really difficult, especially over the last few years, so you can't actually attribute the rise in demand just to something like destigmatisation.

"Regardless of what's driving the increase on demand for support and the impact it's having on young people, it's not going away, and it's getting worse. If we focus on the idea that it's just because we're talking about it more, we're missing the point. What we really need to be doing is addressing the very real situation of young people's lives and looking for solutions rather than trying to explain it away with destigmatisation."

There's been so many structural factors that have made being a young person really difficult... so you can't attribute the rise in demand just to something like destigmatisation

Why are young people more likely to be off work due to ill health?

Gen Z mental health. (Getty Images)
Trivialising the struggles Gen Z face at work disregards their experience and the societal and economic impact. (Getty Images)

Health across the board can influence this, but mental health is a key player.

"We've seen the sharp increase in young people reporting mental health issues at school age and young adults over recent years, so it doesn't come as a surprise to see this is now starting to affect the labour market," says Jones.

"But what we hope it does is bring this issue to the attention of politicians and policymakers, because if they won't act out of compassion for young people and their suffering, maybe they'll act out of the need to address the economic impact that suffering has."

If they won't act out of compassion for young people and their suffering, maybe they'll act out of the need to address the economic impact that suffering has

And no, young people aren't just adversely affected because they're 'snowflakes'. As Jones says, it's difficult to be a young person at the moment. "Instead of questioning whether they actually are suffering with their mental health, we should be focusing on a) supporting them and b) addressing the things in society making the problem worse."

Vigfusdottir adds, "Trivialising the struggles Gen Z face in the workplace by labelling them as unable to cope with work disregards the significant societal and economic factors that uniquely affect younger employees."

Instead of questioning whether they actually are suffering, we should focus on supporting them and addressing the problems

And while it doesn't mean young people always have the luxury of 'refusing' work, she calls them the "most educated generation in history" which comes with changing attitudes. "Unlike previous generations who were taught to tough it out, Gen Z knows that a lot of what we, the older generations, have done at work does not work anymore," says Vigfusdottir.

But it's still proving hard to tailor the world accordingly. "Access to proper healthcare and mental health support is a luxury many young people can't afford, thanks to financial constraints and extremely long NHS waiting lists."

Making a positive change

Two young business women working together in office, Female professionals sitting at the desk talking with each other and smiling.
Small changes can go a long way to helping young people at work. (Getty Images)

"Integrating mental health support in education and ensuring that students have access to counsellors, psychologists, and support groups, along with implementing mental health in the curriculum, will proactively address the immediate needs and cultivate a culture of understanding and empathy," suggests Vigfusdotti.

"Employers should also prioritise wellbeing in the workplace by enacting supportive policies and providing direct access to mental health practitioners. The UK might draw inspiration from successful initiatives seen in Nordic countries where holistic approaches [e.g. work-life balance] have been integrated into workplace culture."

But, Jones adds, "Often it doesn't take much to help a young person in the workplace who's struggling. Sometimes it's just a bit of face-to-face time with their manager, or feeling seen and heard. We consistently hear from young people that feel disempowered and withdraw from work or school."

Often it doesn't take much to help a young person in the workplace who's struggling

Elsa, 22, a YoungMinds Activist, said: “I was struggling severely with my mental health, specifically anxiety and depression which affected every aspect of my life and led to me losing confidence in my ability to do a job well, so I decided to take a break from work. This was a very stressful time, especially because I loved my roles, and the decision had negative effects on my wellbeing because I’ve been much more isolated." Luckily, the break has now helped her evolve.

"We have to do better as a society to make sure those young people are supported when they're struggling. It doesn't have to be as bad as it is right now," adds Jones.

For support, you can call Samaritans on 116 123, text SHOUT to 85258 or parents can call the YoungMinds helpline on 0808 802 5544.

Read more: Mental health dangers of screen addiction and how to have a digital detox (Yahoo Life UK, 7-min read)

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