Nearly one in five US workers are debilitated by anxiety or depression, and the rate only climbs when you zoom in on younger generations.
In a new, nationally representative poll conducted for Quartz by SurveyMonkey Audience, 18% of respondents overall said they are experiencing anxiety or depression to the point where it disrupts work “all the time” or “often.” The rate was nearly twice as high (30%) among Millennial and Gen Z employees (aged 18-34.)
Our figures echo findings of other recent surveys pointing to frayed nerves across the US population and particularly among millennials. Some 18% of Americans are said to have an anxiety disorder, and a study last year by the Center of Talent Innovation found that 33% of millennial-aged, white-collar employees have a disability, physical or otherwise, a number that could be partly explained by surging rates of diagnosed anxiety. (Generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder—the latter refers to disproportionate worry about social situations—are two of the most common label psychologists give to anxiety, and they were only introduced to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980.)
Millennial anxiety may not be unique to millennials
Although millennials report higher rates of anxiety compared to their older colleagues, it’s unclear whether millennials really are more anxious than other generations were at the same age, or if cultural portrayals of them as fragile and thin-skinned make it seem that way. The historical data isn’t there for us to know.
Writers and performers of every generation have laid claim to their own age of anxiety, so enduring a spike in apprehensiveness may be a rite a passage for young adults. Perhaps it takes time to learn that life is a series of sometimes stress-inducing, exogenous factors that can only be tolerated and managed, not evaded. Or that, as philosophers have insisted through the ages, anxiety is a normal side effect of any grasping for certainty about the future, and just knowing this is often the best antidote to its toxic effects.
Then again, many of the suggested causes for millennial distress truly are unique to this era, creating what some call a “sociological” form of anxiety. There’s ballooning student debt, for which a job in the gig economy is not particularly well-suited to tackle. So-called helicopter parents, some suggested, have taught middle-class millennials that achieving, not simply being, is all that matters. And millennials are the first generation to grow up with sophisticated mobile technology, and a fierce social-media habit. They’re therefore less nourished, so to speak, by face-to-face interactions, which can alleviate some of the symptoms of stress and depression, psychological research suggests. Meanwhile, all the selfie-posting leaves millennial psyches soaking in humble brags, showboating, and deceptive depictions of other peoples’ picture-perfect lives.
The persisting social pressure not to take a mental health day
Our survey also asked a nationally representative sample of Americans how they deal with mental health at work. Interestingly, we found that not only millennials believe in candor on the topic. Across all generations, 31% of workers said they’d be comfortable talking to their managers about their mental health, and 72% said they feel supported in this area by their employer.
Despite the abundance of anxiety among the millennials who took our survey, they were not particularly comfortable with asking for a mental health day. Over half (53%) of employed adults of all ages told us that, even on those days when they suspect they ought to stay home to look after their mental health, they go to work anyway. Nearly a third (32%) said they would call in sick, without revealing that it’s their mood and state of mind they’re tending to, and just 15% would feel comfortable frankly declaring their need to care for their psychological well-being. Millennials weren’t terribly different from workers of other ages in their responses to this portion of the survey.
While many people who go into work despite needing a break say they do it because they need the pay, 33% of respondents didn’t believe it was a strong enough to reason to miss a day of work, and a similar share (33%) believed that management would agree. People who worked in the tech industry, our survey suggests, are the most likely to be candid about taking a mental health day—21% of them said they would be comfortable doing so, but only 16% of respondents who work in the healthcare industry, and who arguably should know better, said the same.