The newest generation of professionals is entering the professional world, and their stress levels are already higher than their parents. According to research from the American Psychological Association, Generation Z—those born anywhere from 1994-1997 depending on which expert you reference—are more likely than any previous generation to report their mental health as fair or poor. Over 90% have reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress, including lack of motivation and depression.
There are many issues at play that are stressing Gen Z out, including the political climate, fears regarding their safety, reports of sexual harassment and assault and ever-present issues surrounding money. But of the Gen Z adults completing the survey, 77% of them reported that work was a cause of their stress, compared to 64% of adults overall.
So, why does this matter? Though they are still young and just starting to enter the working world, Gen Z makes up 26% of the overall population. That means they will make up a significant portion of professionals in the not-too-distant future.
What's stressing them out at work
Work can be a place that provides an engaging, fulfilling way for people to follow their passions. Or, it can be a soul-sucking experience that leaves employees significantly more stressed out at the end of the day than when they arrived at the office. And of course, it can run the gamut of the spectrum in between. Generational expert Gregg L. Witt of MotivateInc track trends impacting Gen Z annually from a pool of over 6,000 participants. He notes the major causes of stress at work include the perception of an extremely competitive environment, long hours and tight deadlines imposed by employers, substantial time spent in front of a computer screen, and after-hours side hustles allowing for little downtime.
The reality of the working world may also set in quite harshly, according to Ettore Fantin of Find.jobs. "When Gen Z enters the workforce, they often realize it is not their true passion, see the dead end for the first time, and immediately begin to reevaluate their career path. It's not about the salary. Things just aren't as great when they look under the hood of their employer or industry."
The disconnect between what they expect when they get to work and the reality they find is only heightened by the profound awareness this group has of maintaining their social image. Jess Watts of ad agency RPA conducted a year-long qualitative exploration of Gen Z, finding that perception is top-of-mind. "They feel this very public awareness of their success. It's not a personal professional journey to them - the stakes are much higher and accelerated. You have to be the best, as soon as possible, and you need others to see it and know it."
Watts also notes that the focus is on individual achievement rather than social acceptance. "In one exercise, our ethnography respondents overwhelming chose the ideal of 'power' over 'belonging.' They're desperately seeking control and expecting success at a much younger age, which ends up being a major stressor."
What employers can do to help
Is it a business's responsibility to solve an individual's problem with stress, particularly when it's partially created by things that happen outside of work? Perhaps not. However, it is undeniable that stress has a profound impact on a person's ability to contribute at their highest level, leading to lower engagement at work, less creativity and decreased productivity. So, if you want a workforce made up of mediocre employees, feel free to ignore the stress problem. But if the goal is to create a high-performing team, then creating an environment that supports everyone doing their best work simply must be a priority.
The good news is that there are relatively easy ways that organizations can begin to solve the stress problem, without implementing a full-blown wellness program that less than half of employees would likely participate in. Here are some ideas:
Empowerment with purpose. Gen Z wants to own things from day one. Managers can find ways to empower them in small, safe ways by empowering them with tasks to own now, as well as tasks to aspire to as part of a personal development plan that is reviewed regularly. That will allow them to see their path of growth in the organization in a highly tangible way.
Understand and cultivate their passions. This is a generation that wants to change the world and has definitive ideas about how to do it. Instead of quashing this youthful enthusiasm, find a way to embrace it by showing them the impact of their daily efforts and look for ways to foster their passions, even if it's outside of their job description. A little mentorship and cross-training can go a long way.
Give them a creative outlet. Research has shown that doing a simple creative task can substantially reduce stress levels. This can be as simple as having adult coloring books in the break room.
Provide mindfulness tools and training. Mindfulness at work doesn't always mean creating a meditation program. Sometimes, it's just about giving your team the training and tools to understand how to control their own thoughts and perspectives when things get stressful. Apps like Levelhead can also provide an easy approach to encouraging mindfulness as part of a daily routine at an enterprise level.
Embrace the power of positive recognition. It can be easy to look at Gen Z's addiction to social media with a bit of cynicism, but it's more productive to use their desire for recognition to your advantage. If they want a good pat on the back or to be recognized in front of the group for their hard work, find ways to give it to them! And do it even if the recognition is for smaller tasks. The point is not specifically what they are working on - the point is to help them feel great about the work they're doing, even when they are at the entry level. The reality is that most employees (of all generations) do not get enough positive recognition at work. Cultivating an environment that supports it is one of the most impactful things any leader can do.
These ideas may seem deceptively simple but also represent a good start in helping employees to manage their stress so that they can come to work and contribute on at their highest level. But by no means is this a comprehensive list. When it comes to reducing stress through small, everyday efforts, the possibilities are endless. The most important piece is to make it a consistent, focused part of an overall business strategy with the understanding that your bottom line results rely on doing it well.
The time to start is now
Hans Selye, the father of stress research, once quipped "to be totally without stress is to be dead." It's simply a part of the human condition. The goal of these efforts is not to eliminate all stress from the equation. Instead, the goal is to mitigate the impact that toxic stress has on overall productivity. If organizational leaders don't start cultivating positive, engaging cultures now, they are in for a rude awakening in a few years when Gen Z begins to make up the majority of their young professionals.