Over the last few months, thousands of recent graduates will have started their first job. Many feel unprepared during this major transition. Moving into the workplace can be a significant challenge for a young person’s mental health, since factors such as moving house and dealing with a big life change can put us under more pressure than normal.
The cost of stress to the workplace is substantive; the 2016 Labour Force Survey identified that 11.7 million days are lost each year to work related stress, depression or anxiety. Stress accounts for 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. This isn’t simply an economic cost – it is also a cost to the well-being of individuals, as stress can contribute to, or be a symptom of, further mental health difficulties.
Universities have for a long time focused on employability, especially whether our graduates have the critical thinking, analytical or communication skills to succeed at work. But have we thought enough about whether we’re adequately preparing them for the pressures of the workplace?
The first real job
One person we spoke to on a City graduate scheme noted that:
“an employer will never get the best from its graduates if they are unable to support them with any mental health difficulties. Starting a new job can be stressful at the best of times, let alone if it is your first ‘real’ job, you are in a new city with no support network, and you already struggle with mental illness.”
Employers and universities have an important role to play in supporting people experiencing mental health difficulties, and a real opportunity to promote and improve their general well-being. Universities are increasingly making mental health a strategic priority, encouraged by the recent Universities UK Step Change Framework, and there is a great deal of work focusing on workplace well-being in the mental health and business sectors. But there has been a gap in research looking specifically at the experiences of young students as they leave university and enter the workplace.
Well-being in the workplace
The Graduate Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace report, based on a survey delivered by Student Minds with colleagues at King’s College London and The City Mental Health Alliance, summarises findings from over 300 recent graduates. It considers how universities can best prepare students for; the transition into the workplace, stress, and mental well-being.
The first key finding of the report is that universities could do more to prepare students for when they leave university. The data suggests that overall, graduates do not feel their university provides sufficient preparation for the workplace. While graduates feel that their university provides support looking for and applying for jobs, few felt it provides training and support on how to make the transition out of university or into the workplace.
A university careers service might be expected to be the first point of call for students wishing to gain information on employment opportunities and applying for jobs, but often isn’t according to McKeown & Lindorff (2011). The data reported here echoes these findings, with fewer than 50% of graduates ranking their university career services within their “Top 5” resources for informing their career decisions. We suspect that many students do not know the range of support their careers service might provide. Graduates’ perceptions of the preparation their university provided for the workplace had a weak relationship to current mental well-being and perceived stress, indicating that action by universities alone is unlikely to have a substantive influence on graduate mental well-being.
The report also calls for universities and employers to work together to improve the graduate experience. There is much that can be done to prevent low mental well-being in the workplace, as the World Mental Health Day theme of mental health in the workplace highlighted. Our report found that graduate schemes are associated with a better graduate experience. Getting the transition into the workplace place right improves subsequent mental well-being and reduces subsequent stress. Work culture also relates to graduate confidence in disclosing mental health difficulties. As such, a whole-workplace approach, sensitive to the unique experiences of graduates, can be effective in preventing and supporting mental health difficulties when they do arise.
Overall, this new research highlights the need for both universities and employers to make significant changes to support individuals’ well-being. Mental health does not exist in a vacuum, it can be significantly affected by the environments and communities that we inhabit. We hope to see more universities and employers working together to review their strategies, supporting more young graduates to thrive in the workplace.