The recent reaction to Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics demonstrated a clear generational divide in understanding of mental health and its impact on our working lives.
While many in Generation Z and millennials took to Twitter to applaud her commitment to self care, some older media commentators taunted her as “weak”. Of course, these two groups were far from homogenous – there were congratulations and condemnation from all ages – but it was impossible not to notice some trends.
Our current cohort of graduates are highly cognisant of the ways in which work can impact mental wellbeing and vice versa. But are they going into a labour market dominated by an outlook far behind them?
Generation Z is conscious of emotional wellbeing. They volunteer in peer support groups, they openly identify with their mental health diagnoses, and they run TikTok accounts where they share how they deal with symptoms of different disorders in healthy ways. I speak of Generation Z (18 – 24 year olds) broadly – but these values are present in a wider age range of students in the current cohorts who are exposed to better mental health practice and “compassionate campus” ideology and implementation.
Because of this, it’s clear that their awareness extends not just to medical conditions – they approach wellbeing progressively and holistically. We saw this during the pandemic when many student societies had to cease in-person activity. Students openly and urgently voiced the impact this had on their wellbeing – not because it was potentially fatal or life-altering but because they valued mental wellbeing, and the activity that preserves it, as a necessity in and of itself. Low levels of wellbeing, even in the absence of a mental health problem, was a key concern for students.
Universities create this expectation
They were right to complain. There is no doubt that students have been hit hard by the pandemic – discriminate and targeted lockdowns, a subpar teaching and learning experience, and being scapegoated by the press as vectors of disease. But most have had freely accessible, professional mental health support from their university wellbeing centres, where the waiting lists of which are not as long as the NHS and the practices are often informed by leading academics and research from within the institution. Non-clinically, students went into the pandemic with ready-built peer support communities from their students’ unions, and university hardship funds were provided to alleviate financial stress. As one mature PGT student told me, “I was so lucky to have this safety net.”
And universities are pioneering holistic understandings of wellbeing. Pandemic assessment policies gave way to self certification (which many SU officers are fighting to keep); many institutions have responded to the high-profile killings of both George Floyd and Sarah Everard with accessible and culturally-competent support for students which appear to have resulted in a narrowing of disabled and black attainment gaps, and earlier this year Goldsmiths introduced “racial trauma” as a reason for exam mitigation.
Whatever your opinion on the validity of these sorts of initiatives, there is a clear move from universities and their students to understand and act upon the ways in which emotional and mental wellbeing – not just mental health problems – can impact academic performance.
But what happens post-graduation, when students enter a job market which not only doesn’t match their emotional fluency – or meet their now set expectations around mental wellbeing – but is actively set up against them?
Generation Z is the first post-war generation to see slower earnings growth relative to its parents. They are also more likely to be employed in atypical forms of work such as agency work, temporary contracts, gig economy jobs and zero-hours contracts in the wake of the 2008 crisis.
Last month The Resolution Foundation found that young people have been hit hardest when it comes to the labour market – and they have also suffered a more serious shock to their mental health than older age groups. Even more pressing is that their data suggests that when it comes to unemployment in young people, the crisis may be at an early stage and progressing – in 2000, 18 – 24 year olds had the lowest incidence of any age group when it came to mental illness. This picture has now inverted, placing 18 – 24 years in the age group with the highest proportion of mental illness.
This is not new. There is a wealth of literature around graduate mental health and unemployment or unstable employment. And perhaps we need a clear understanding of the impacts of poor wellbeing on in the workplace graduates – which likely takes a plummet when graduates are used to comprehensive and compassionate approaches during their studies.
Wellbeing is a welcomed recent addition to the Graduate Outcomes survey. But do we need to wait for comparative data, especially when “the number of young people developing mental health problems in the crisis has far outstripped what we would normally expect”?
Jim Dickinson has argued for universities to take a proactive stance on ensuring healthy work cultures for students in part-time jobs. But what happens post-graduation? When estimates suggest that around one-in-five days that staff are absent from work is due to poor mental health it’s time for universities to take a proactive stance on graduate mental wellbeing in the workplace.
If we actively equip our graduates with the fluency to discuss the non-critical, as well as critical, wellbeing needs – which they are already proficient at recognising – then we may be able to actively shape future Graduate Outcomes data now.
If we don’t then we have the perfect storm – a cohort with the worst mental health, and socio-economic conditions to deplete mental wellbeing, for generations with expectations of accommodations, but without the ability to communicate these. To avoid two generations within an organisation talking at odds with each other from sides of a huge divide we need to equip our graduates with the tools to negotiate with their employers.
And if the only employability we develop in our students are generic graduate attributes and perhaps some digital skills, and not how to approach a manager who is not emotionally aware, then we have not only done them a disservice but we have also failed to capitalise on the comprehensive emotional intelligence this new cohort of graduate have to offer the workplace.
Equally, universities need to utilise their power to influence graduate employers to accommodate wellbeing beyond, and before, occupational health recommendations. Perhaps, rather than asking employers if they felt graduates they employed were prepared for the role they were recruited for, universities and the wider sector should be asking employers if they have the capacity to meet graduate expectations and understanding of mental wellbeing, and actively influencing their understanding if they do not.
We talk a lot in higher education about setting students up for the world of work. But given the generational divide in how non-crisis mental wellbeing is perceived in the workplace, and the way in which compassionate and progressive policies of university campuses add to the expectations of graduates, that presents the sector with a choice.
Either we “toughen them up” and prepare them for their mental health to be ignored in the workplace, or we work to change the views and attitudes of employers to get the most out of the graduates we produce. I know which one I’d prefer.