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5 Things You Need to Know About Your Early Talent’s Wellbeing Now

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The global workforce is in the midst of an ongoing period of substantial change. In early 2020, COVID-19 catapulted the world into the sudden real-time experiment of mass lockdown and remote working.  In response, employees demonstrated remarkable levels of adaptability, resilience and grit.  For some, working exclusively from home presented new advantages and opportunities for personal and professional wellbeing.  For many, and particularly for early career talent (ECT), it also presented new challenges and exacerbated existing wellbeing issues.  Today it is clear the working world will not return to pre-covid norms; instead, a new era of ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ working has dawned.

In this article we will share 5 key insights to support you to enhance your ECT’s wellbeing in this hybrid context.

 

1.     ECT are very vulnerable to wellbeing issues

Even before the pandemic started, wellbeing was a key issue for young people, with 80% of those studying in higher education reporting symptoms of stress or anxiety in 2019 (UniHealth, 2019).  Indeed, the period between ages 18 and 24 is a time of especially high risk for experiencing a mental health problem. Three-quarters of all mental health problems arise before the mid-20s (Mental Health Foundation, 2020), and the Institute of Student Employers’ Development Survey shows that employers have repeatedly identified resilience as a key skills gap among early career talent joining their organisations from education.

With the British Medical Journal reporting that one of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a decrease in the stigma attached to mental health, it is likely that employee wellbeing and mental health will become even more visible in the future workplace.  Indeed, it seems there has never been a more pertinent time for employers to support their people’s wellbeing:  Global wellbeing has been on a downward trajectory for the last decade (Gallup, 2021), with the UK depression rate more than doubling in the last two years (ONS, 2021) and tripling in the US (Ettman C. et al, 2020).  So we are entering a new and uncertain phase already in poor shape from a  wellbeing point of view.  7 in 10 employees report suffering or struggling rather than thriving in their lives overall.  80% are not engaged or are actively disengaged from work (Gallup, 2021).  60% report anxiety. And productivity is impacted by poor mental health for 1 in 5 (The Workplace Health Report, 2022).  This lack of engagement costs the global economy US$8.1 trillion, nearly 10% of GDP, in lost productivity each year (Gallup, 2021).

However, the impact of COVID-19 on wellbeing levels has not been a democratic one, and ECT are a key ‘wellbeing gap’ group:  With every week that passed as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the normality of lives, headlines around the world spoke to the particular impact of pandemic-living on our youth.  DBL’s own research showed that while a small majority of 18-24s felt hopeful during the pandemic, 33.7% felt either discouraged or concerned about the future.  Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that 18–24s consistently felt more lonely than the general population across each successive pandemic wave; a higher proportion of 18–24s than the rest of the population believed their own futures would be worse as a result of the pandemic; a higher proportion of 18–24s reported suicidal thoughts or deliberately hurting themselves; and students specifically reported feeling less able to cope with the stress of the pandemic, and being more worried about the future.

This is a generation starting out their careers on a back-foot when it comes to wellbeing, at a time when society’s long-term wellbeing has been universally dampened.  They are also now working in a hybrid context which, while beneficial in many ways, throws up its own inherent challenges in respect of wellbeing.

2.     Hybrid contexts present a further wellbeing disadvantage

One of the biggest wellbeing watch-outs for 2022 flagged by the likes of The Economist and Forbes, is that many organisations are still lacking a clear, robust definition of what blended working actually means.  But beyond the impact of this level of uncertainty on employee wellbeing, hybrid working actually puts ECT at a particular disadvantage.

18–24s are much less likely to be well set up for comfortable remote working.  Many live with parents or in flat shares. And the Mental Health Foundation warns that trying to work from houses or flats of multiple occupation translates to a greater risk to wellbeing.  The CIPD has warned of an equalities gap emerging between those who have the space to work comfortably from home versus those who don’t.

 Additionally, ECT have a greater need for the office, specifically to be in physical proximity to their managers and colleagues; and a greater need to build relationships in order to bolster their wellbeing.  Findings from PWC show the least experienced workers need the office the most; and 18–24-year-olds least prefer working at home compared to other demographics (Claromentis, 2021).

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 Set this ‘hybrid disadvantage’ against a broader context in which wellbeing was already a growing concern for this demographic even pre-COVID-19, followed by the subsequent mental health toll of the pandemic hitting 18-24s the hardest of all demographics, and we have a recipe for urgency.

Research highlights the importance of leaders supporting wellbeing in a blended future, with wellbeing empirically proven to help stabilise organisations, and to navigate uncertainty towards success (Gallup, 2022). If implemented well, blended models present the opportunity for tremendous advantages whereby we can marry the benefits of remote working with the rewards of face-to-face interactions.  Conversely, if blended working is enforced without due consideration for individual and organisational wellbeing, we risk exacerbating existing workforce inequalities, and we lose all hope of reversing the current downward trajectory of ECT wellbeing in 2022.

3.     ECT need more support to build relationships and connections

Our research shows new starters have a slightly greater need for emotional support than established talent (34% vs 31%) and a much greater need for support in building relationships than established talent (32% vs 18%).

Students about to enter the workforce also rated building relationships as their top challenge (46%) versus established employees (24%) – a difference of 22%.

 

These statistics really speak to the challenge, for new starters, of building connections and relationships from scratch in a hybrid context.  As one UK employer articulated in a DBL wellbeing focus group,

The challenge going forward with a hybrid work model is that interns and grads are desperate to be in amongst it in the office and to get a taste of the culture, but that only works if, at a minimum, managers are there too.”

 4.     ECT lack confidence in their performance

An interesting, although probably unsurprising, insight from our research is that early career employees haven’t enjoyed the same confidence levels, in terms of their performance (-8%) from remote working that established talent have; and they have a greater need for support in working in hybrid contexts compared to established talent (+13%).  They are actively calling for more training for hybrid working.

PWC found respondents with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) felt less productive while working remotely than their more experienced colleagues (34% vs 23%).  Additionally, they were found to more highly value meetings with managers and company training programmes.

 

5.     ECT report lower levels of autonomy

Our research revealed that early career respondents also feel less autonomous when working remotely than more established talent (-5%).  This is unsurprising when we consider their comparative lack of experience; their more junior and less autonomous positions; and the difficult transition from education to the world of work, which research shows is one of the toughest transitions we ever make – now made even harder in a context of ambiguity and uncertainty.

In summary, ECT were already vulnerable to lower wellbeing levels pre-COVID, and were then the hardest hit by the mental health toll of the pandemic.  Wellbeing watch-outs going forward include the difficulty of building relationships in hybrid settings; lower confidence in their own capability; lower feelings of autonomy; lower levels of resource compared to more established talent and, ultimately, a greater need for the office – all of which employers will need to navigate in current and future hybrid contexts.

How to help your ECT navigate these wellbeing challenges

The behavioural scientists at DBL have closely tracked the impact of the pandemic on wellbeing, with a focus on ECT.  Leveraging research methodologies utilised by the UK government, we commissioned research surveying over a thousand respondents globally, conducted rigorous desk research, and a thorough literature review and meta-analysis, culminating in an evidence-based, actionable model – C-A-L-M.  Grounded in behavioural science and psychology, C-A-L-M was created specifically to help employers navigate wellbeing challenges in a blended future.  You can find out more about our C-A-L-M strategies for supporting ECT wellbeing here.

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Alice Hooper-Scott

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