Are Gen Z the most stressed generation in the workplace?

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Nearly all workers are struggling to cope with economic precarity and professional stress. Yet the youngest workers may be feeling the strain more than anyone.

The instability, insecurity and relentless upheaval of the past several years has left workers anxious. And now, as layoffs proliferate, and pay fails to keep pace with rising inflation, they’re still worrying – in some cases, more than ever.

The global strain of what some call a ‘permacrisis’ impacts workers of all ages, yet many researchers and experts posit that Gen Z are the most stressed cohort in the workplace overall. Jumping into their careers in the past few years – with some only just entering the workforce during the pandemic – has put them in particularly difficult situations. According to Cigna International Health’s 2023 survey of almost 12,000 workers around the world, 91% of 18-to-24-year-olds report being stressed – compared to 84% on average.

Research indicates Gen Z are emerging as the most stressed demographic in the workplace, and struggling mightily to cope. The same data shows un-manageable stress affects almost a quarter of the Gen Z respondents (23%), and almost all (98%) are dealing with symptoms of burnout.

In short, the youngest workers are having the most trouble wrestling with demands of professional life. What’s going on?

An unfortunate confluence

Although the widespread panic of the Covid-19 pandemic has largely settled, 2023 is keeping most workers in anxiety-laden situations.

In the workplace, after a number of employees – specifically, knowledge workers – reaped the benefits of a more flexible approach to working, many employers are shifting course and demanding a full return-to-the-office. Economic instability still looms, and many companies are cutting thousands of jobs, or leaving employees worried that they’re next.

“In its essence, work is at a very uncertain time,” explains London-based Eliza Filby, a generational researcher, who advises companies on managing and recruiting people in their 20s. “There’s horrendous stress about layoffs for everyone”.

Economic hardships are monumentally compounding workplace troubles, too. Data from a 2023 report by HR-software company Workhuman shows the cost-of-living crisis is causing 84% of UK workers stress and anxiety. There are similar trends across the globe, including in Ireland, the US and Canada.

Burnout is a major problem for Gen Zers, who report this issue in significant numbers (Credit: Getty Images)

Burnout is a major problem for Gen Zers, who report this issue in significant numbers (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet while these concerns are widespread, Gen Z appears to be struggling most acutely. October 2022 data from McKinsey and Company shows that employed Gen Zers were more likely than other respondents (26% versus 20%) to report their pay did not enable them to have a “good quality of life” in the current economy. These effects are already evident: Gen Z are saving significantly less money, and many are living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque. They’re also struggling more than other generations to hit essential milestones, like home-ownership; in the US, for instance, some 34% of Americans don’t – and never expect to – own a home. But these sentiments are more widespread among young people (59% of 18-to-24-year-olds, compared to 29% of 29-to-34-year-olds).

Beyond the large-scale stressors, experts say young workers are struggling with interpersonal relationships. “There are still a lot of question marks around the etiquette of work friendships, office attire and professional boundaries,” adds Filby. Working environments in and of themselves, can cause stress and anxiety for junior employees, she says, but “having to go into an office, socialise and be managed feels very alien to a lot of young people. The social aspects of work remain intimidating”.

Overall, this combination of stressors has led to a poor work experience. Data shows Gen Z workers report more struggles than the general population with hostile work environments, mental- and physical-health issues and even the inability to share one’s full self in the workplace.

‘It’s not a huge surprise’

Filby believes that Gen Z are experiencing a particular type of anxiety due to the extraordinary climate in which they entered the workplace.

For university-aged Gen Zers, many were forced to finish their degrees in isolating, fully virtual learning environments during the pandemic, only to transition directly into a precarious economic situation and unusual workplace conditions, complete with the threat – and often, the reality – of furlough or redundancy. And junior employees across the board – even if they’ve had a few years of workforce experience – have also been less likely to form meaningful connections among their colleagues, and build relationships with essential mentors.

[I] feel like this will be my life forever – Michelle

The start-and-stop of return-to-office has only complicated this, says LinkedIn Career Expert Andrew McCaskill, creator of The Black Guy in Marketing newsletter. . “Going through transitional and uncertain times completely remotely doesn’t help with stress."

These conditions have, in many cases, stunted Gen Z’s professional development, which weighs on them. Indeed, data indicates young workers are feeling ill-equipped within the workplace overall. LinkedIn data from December 2022, shared with BBC Worklife, shows 18-to-25-year-olds to be the least confident out of all generations in their current job or role. Only 43% of Gen Z feel extremely confident – perfectly capable in every aspect of their role – compared to 59% of Gen Y [millennials], Gen X and Boomers.

Additionally, in data from a 2022 global survey of more than 10,000 workers, conducted by work-management platform Asana, Gen Z respondents said they were unable to switch off from work at a disproportionately higher rate than previous generations. The McKinsey data shows young people are also more concerned than any other demographic about the stability of their employment – 45% of Gen Zers versus 40% of all respondents.

“I think that Gen Z is getting to see what millennials dealt with when they graduated college during the Great Recession, which is very stressful and will add to their already heightened anxiety,” says Los Angeles-based Santor Nishizaki, an organisational leadership expert and author of Working with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce after Covid-19.

One issue for Gen Zers is that they don't have as much agency in the workplace as their older colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

One issue for Gen Zers is that they don't have as much agency in the workplace as their older colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

This all resonates for 25-year-old Michelle, in New York. She does not enjoy her job at an oil-tank company, and feels her relationship with working changed dramatically during the pandemic, increasing her hopelessness and sense of entrapment. “With all the layoffs and firings, I felt like I couldn’t take risks to try new things.” Michelle, whose surname is being withheld for job security, says stress ramped up, and she finds it harder to manage her work life now. “[I] feel like this will be my life forever,” she says.

‘Devastating – economically, socially and much more’

The fact that the youngest people in the workplace are struggling to keep their heads above water should alarm everyone.

In the short term, Gen Z’s stress is leading to ambivalence and withdrawal in their professional lives. According to 2022 data from Gallup, they are the most disengaged group at work. They also report more overall stress and work-related burnout than other cohorts. “We found that during the pandemic, a good portion of Gen Zers admitted to not giving a full effort at work, which is a symptom of burnout and other workplace behaviours, like disengagement, unclear communication, lack of manager support and loneliness,” says Nishizaki.

In the long term, this stress and burnout will influence job performance and career growth as well as increase the likelihood that workers will simply quit. It’s already a tempting prospect for the youngest workers: in the US, for instance, 61% of US workers who responded to the December 2022 LinkedIn survey are considering leaving their jobs in 2023, leaping to 72% among Gen Zers, by far the most significant group. Globally, McKinsey’s research showed 77% of Gen Zers are looking for a new job – almost double the rate of other respondents.

During the pandemic, a good portion of Gen Zers admitted to not giving a full effort at work, which is a symptom of burnout and other workplace behaviours – Santor Nishizaki

By 2025, Gen Z will make up 27% of the workforce in OECD countries, and one-third of the global population. If the majority are too stressed to work, Nishizaki believes it would be “devastating – economically, socially and much more.”

However, taking the strain off the youngest workers is a challenge for which there is no quick fix, say experts, as the current environment stays in flux.

Whatever happens outside the office walls, leaders can begin by building what Nishizaki describes as a culture of purpose and impact. “Gen Zers want to work for an organisation that offers flexibility, a boss who is a coach and a mentor (rather than a technical expert), frequent communication and clarity on how their work creates a positive impact in the world,” he explains. Easing Gen Z’s workplace burdens will be impossible without addressing their overall mental health too – which, like the economy, remains in permacrisis.

Such a multi-faceted issue requires an approach on many levels – but employers have a significant role to play. “Companies need to recognise how they’re contributing to Gen Z’s stress, and in what ways they can help them maintain their mental health,” says Filby. She has been heartened by some attempts from older managers fighting to alleviate Gen Zers’ distress, and keep them in the workplace. Still, she says, there is a long way to go with support.

Gen Z may also need to try to get out of their comfort zones to reduce their stress by speaking out about their struggles. Filby says they are uniquely positioned to do this. “Young people are much more willing to articulate what constitutes stress and stress in the workplace.” However, this may not be so straightforward, as mental-health stigma still has a way to go before it is eradicated, and younger workers also have the least leverage in the workplace to speak up about what they want and need to ameliorate their situations, both personally and professionally.

For now, external factors may mean Gen Z will continue to struggle with stress in the workplace. And it’s tough. Michelle, for her part, says she remains isolated from her older colleagues, whom she feels “can’t relate to her issues with stress”.

“I cope by just saying I will eventually find a way out,” says Michelle. “Currently, I’m trying to manifest winning the lottery.”