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Is The Modern UK Labour Market Harming Millennials' Mental Health?

27/07/2017 17:35 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 17:35 BST
Milton Brown via Getty Images

New IPPR research finds younger workers in 'flexible' job-types more likely to experience mental health problems

Politicians of all stripes have set off on their summer holidays, recovering from the upheaval of a momentous spring in British politics. When they return in the autumn, we can expect Brexit to once again take top billing, as the Article 50 countdown clock ticks slowly on.

But, despite the loss of her majority, the Prime Minister looks determined to continue to address the 'burning injustices' she talked about on the steps of Downing Street on her very first day in the job.

In particular, we can expect to hear more about the world of work, and the state of the nation's mental health.

A few weeks ago, the PM used the publication of the government-commissioned Taylor Review to recommit to protect those affected by the changing nature of work. And in the autumn, another government-commissioned independent review (led by Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer) will look to identify ways to support those who experience mental health problems at work.

A record number of people in the UK are in work. But, at the same time, demand for mental health services is soaring. 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience a diagnosable mental health problem each year.

We know that fulfilling employment can minimise the risk of developing poorer mental health, and that negative experiences of work can have the opposite effect.

But beyond this, how well do we understand the interactions between the way we work and our mental health?

New IPPR analysis - published today - suggests that it is today's generation of younger workers who are getting a particularly raw deal in the modern UK labour market.

Comparing millennials to those who entered the labour market a decade before, it finds the former are more likely to be in part-time work, more likely to be self-employed and equally likely to be on a temporary contract.

On its own, this is not evidence of a 'raw deal'. After all, millennials may be choosing to work part-time or to be self-employed in order to benefit from greater flexibility and achieve a better work-life balance.

However, the analysis also shows that, compared to the previous generation of younger workers, millennials are 60 per cent more likely to be underemployed, and so work fewer hours than they would like. And they are twice as likely to be overqualified, and so work in a non-graduate role despite having a degree. And on top of that, the proportion of employees aged 21-25 in low-paid work increased by 82 per cent between 1990 and 2015.

It's hard to imagine millennials choosing to be underemployed, overqualified or in low-pay.

But what are the implications of this changing world of work on millennials' mental health and wellbeing?

Our newly-published analysis show that millennials in temporary work are 29 per cent more likely to experience mental health problems than those in permanent work, while millennials in part-time work are 43 per cent more likely than those in full-time work to experience problems.

Millennials who are overqualified are 38 per cent more likely to report being anxious or depressed than those who are graduates working in graduate-roles. And those in low-paid work are 31 per cent more likely than those in higher-paid work to experience problems.

This suggests that, for a significant number of young people, their experiences of the modern world of work would appear to be putting their mental health and wellbeing at greater risk.

So, what can be done?

Employers are increasingly introducing initiatives which aim to protect employees' mental health and ensure that those who need support are able to access it. While anti-stigma campaigns such as Time to Change are helping create working environments in which people are more comfortable to talk openly about their mental health.

But, as worthwhile as these initiatives are, they are unlikely to provide more than a sticking plaster on the problem unless government and employers work together to recognise and address the fundamental interrelationship between work and mental health. That means contract-types, pay, progression and security.

Speaking at the launch of the Taylor Review, the Prime Minister argued that the labour market's flexibility is a source of strength and we must 'do nothing' to weaken it.

But the question we should be asking is 'flexibility for who?'

If we prioritise flexibility for employers at the expense of control for employees, we are storing up problems which will result in low productivity, increased rates of sickness absence, and more young people falling out of work altogether.

Instead, government and employers should work together to promote better quality jobs which maximise the benefits of flexibility, while ensuring that employees feel in control of their own working lives.

This is the only way to prevent a significant number of younger workers becoming trapped in a cycle of low-pay, with few prospects and low wellbeing.

Reviews are a good start. Next, we need action.