Young people, modern work, and mental health
It is the international stress awareness week, which may come as a particular surprise to those of us sufficiently aware of our internal pressure cooker also the other 51 weeks of each year. To mark the occasion, I decided to share a few thoughts on young Europeans, mental health, and work.
First things first, according to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is a response to unmanageable pressures from situations which make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Although useful in short bursts, a prolonged stress response inhibits the body from returning to its normal state and harms both our physical and mental well-being. Long-term stress negatively impacts our attention span, memory, and ability to manage emotions, as well as the structure of the brain physically by affecting both nerve cells and their connections. These changes can increase the risk of developing a mental illness or worsen existing conditions, which can quickly lead to difficulties with completing daily activities, managing interpersonal relationships and maintaining work efficiency.
Stress is also subjective and differs from person to person depending on genetics and external variables such as economic and social circumstances. And in an environment of unforgiving assessments and performance testing it can certainly be difficult to be kind to one’s own mistakes. On the response of young people in particular, psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt have suggested that the constant presence of stress-inducing pressures have increased the tendency towards perfectionism. In brief, perfectionism means an irrational desire for flawlessness mixed with punitive self-criticism and an obsessive need to correct one’s own imperfections. It is associated with severe mental health problems, such as anorexia nervosa, depression, and suicide ideation, in the long-term. Furthermore, professors Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill provide support for the claim in their 2017 study showing that the levels of perfectionism among young people have indeed risen significantly since 1989. The ideal of the perfect self is one of the many unhealthy responses we have developed to the pressures of life both online and offline.
One of the most significant factors affecting both our economic and social circumstances is work (or the lack of it). In fact, when it comes to work-related health problems, stress is the second most frequently reported issue in Europe. And we have no relief valve in sight: the ongoing transformation of work through automation and a trend towards gig economy (a labour market built on temporary and flexible jobs, where companies prefer to hire independent contractors and freelancers) competition have increased job uncertainty, income insecurity, and decreased the feeling of control people have over their own work. These have all been associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease in the workforce.
Competing harder for worse real term pay-offs than the generation before in many parts of Europe, young people are frontline cannon fodder in the changing job market. First, at around 15%, youth unemployment in Europe is at the moment more than double the overall unemployment rate and shows no sign of being significantly reduced anytime soon without active and coordinated European policy response. Second, as job automation is set to eliminate many entry-level routine roles in the near future, a growing number of young people will find it difficult to enter the labour market and build a career. And although the risk of automation is mitigated in the general population by educational attainment, this is not the case with young people, as many highly-skilled graduates still begin their careers in positions that do not require complex cognitive or social skills. Third, under 30-year-olds are the largest age cohort within gig economy workers, experiencing high levels of wage fluctuation and job insecurity with limited protections Adding to the mix are unpaid internships, effectively devaluing the contributions of young people at work. Even though there are benefits to the flexibility of these jobs, young people in short-term contracts and freelancing often struggle to acquire the necessary skills and experience to build a career on, while the insecurity associated with these roles is a risk to their mental well-being. Yet gaining good quality employment at the start of our careers is important both for our long-term economic prosperity and for the protection of our mental health.
So not only is the next generation’s structural inability to build a career and generate wealth economically unsustainable in the long run, but the situation is also damaging to our health. To alleviate the situation, the EU needs to provide leadership and find policy solutions to support young people struggling to establish themselves in the job market and land good quality employment. Youth unemployment in Europe needs to be elevated to more than just a talking point. The Commission’s current proposal of €4.3 billion in the 2021-27 Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) spent on tackling youth unemployment is a far cry from the €45 billion annual investment that the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates is needed for the purpose. More funding must be on offer to support training opportunities and schemes that incentivise hiring young people both on the public and private sectors. Equally, the EU needs to provide a platform for the Member States to come up with innovative education solutions ensuring that young people enter the workforce with the appropriate digital skills as well as the creativity and social skills needed to adapt to the rapidly changing world of work.
Importantly, the EU must work to ensure that the Member States provide sufficient support to young Europeans struggling with the intense pressures of modern work. There is an urgent need for better to funding to make sure that professional help is available for young people at universities and on the local level across European regions. Without this investment in prevention and mitigation the situation will end up costing the European society significantly more in the years to come. ‘Workers have the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work’, says the European Pillar of Social Rights – and this key principle should apply also to mental health at work.