Young, depressed and too ill to work: Why twentysomethings are calling in sick

A new study shows this cohort are the most likely to be out of work.

Young, depressed and too ill to work: Why twentysomethings are calling in sick
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People in their 20s with mental ill health are more likely to be unemployed (Image: Getty Images)

Naomi* has suffered from depression and anxiety since she was 12.

Though she’s seen multiple therapists specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), these have only been a temporary fix – leaving her feeling so suicidal at her work desk that she’s even contacted a helpline during work hours.

‘It’s meant that I’ve struggled to reach targets set by my managers and failed to communicate with them effectively,’ the 25-year-old, from Nottingham, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I’ve been let go by a job after failing my probation period. Now that I’m job hunting, I’m worried about the same thing happening again.’

Alongside her poor mental health, Naomi also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. This, she believes, hinders her chances of finding work even more.

‘No matter how hard I try with the amount of applications I send to employers, I’m in fear that I’m never going to be an ideal candidate to the hiring board,’ she adds.

New research suggests that people in their 20s, just like Naomi, are more likely to be unemployed than those in their 40s. The leading reason is mental ill health.

According to the study, between 2018 and 2022, one in five (21%) of 18-24-year-olds with mental health problems were out of work, compared with 13% of those without mental health problems.

Critically, the number of young people who are out of work because of ill-health has more than doubled over the last decade, skyrocketing from 93,000 to 190,000.

The research, from Resolution Foundation, also found that in 2021-2022 more than one in three (34%) of young people aged 18-24 reported symptoms of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. And, to coincide with this increase, over half a million in this age group were prescribed anti-depressants between 2021 and 2022.

Mental ill health isn’t just translating to a lack of employment for some: those that are employed are calling in sick to work more often.

According to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), the number of staff sick days has increased dramatically in the past year, shooting up from 5.8 days per year before the pandemic to 7.8, with mental ill health cited as a popular reason for many absences.

Naomi isn’t alone. Being neurodivergent is inextricably linked with poor mental health, with research finding that 50% of adults with ADHD report severe to extremely severe symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. For autistic people, the statistic rises to 80%.

These figures translate in the workplace, too, and neurodivergent people are more likely to experience unemployment than their neurotypical peers.

In 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that just 22% of autistic adults were in any form of employment.

Likewise, one US study concluded that, amongst participants, just 33.9% of people with ADHD were employed full-time compared with 59% of people without ADHD. And when they were in work, people with ADHD had a lower average household income, at $41,511 compared to the control average of $52,053.

How can employers support employees with their mental health?

Michelle Robinson Hayes, mental health trainer and preventative services lead at Vita Health Group, argues that creating a safe space for employees is paramount in ensuring mental wellbeing at work.

‘If employees feel they cannot speak up and speak out about how they are feeling, it may only compound their feelings of stress and anxiety. Workplaces must be safe spaces where employees feel they can talk about their mental health, without being punished for doing so,’ Michelle tells Metro.co.uk.

Elsewhere, she suggests equipping managers with the skills and confidence to help colleagues, including a Mental Health First Aid course.

‘A huge part of managing mental health in the workplaces is ensuring all employees – especially managers as those who often have the biggest influence on an employee’s experience – are equipped with the skills and confidence to spot the signs, know the right questions to ask, and understand where to guide a person to for support,’ she adds.

Daisy*, 31 from London, also struggled with her mental health and, consequently her work, during her 20s.

When she was 23, she was diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder and, following her diagnosis, her condition escalated, to the point where she spent a month on a psychiatric ward. After she recovered from this episode, she thought she could juggle her condition with her work – but sadly, she was wrong.

‘I thought I could still work at a prestigious company and live a “normal” life. But I became stressed again due to work and this triggered another very serious manic episode,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘For the next six years I would experience cyclical manic and major depressive episodes and I was repeatedly hospitalised.’

Following her diagnosis, Daisy experienced a mental health episode that was so intense that she quit her job as a lawyer one year into the contract, moving to a smaller firm that she thought she’d find less demanding. Again, she struggled.

‘I only managed to keep this job for a month or two before plummeting into a major depressive episode which left me catatonic and unable to do anything like walking, talking, showering. I realised that I wasn’t going to last in any role that required ongoing stability or consistency, so I quit.’

Now 31, Daisy has found solace in freelance writing, a career that has offered her the flexibility she’s craved – and needed – for many years.

‘I realised writing is one of the only realistic career avenues available to me – because it allows me to take several weeks out a year when I’m manic or depressed,’ she reflects. ‘Working for an employer is actually a huge risk for me – I have to avoid stress at all costs.’

So, is there anything that can be done to help support young people who are out of work because of their mental health? According to mental health charity Mind, there is.

‘Young people need support both in schools and colleges and through early support hubs in the community, particularly in areas of high deprivation,’ Nil Guzelgun, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The NHS also needs to make sure that waiting times for CAMHS are reduced urgently.

‘There also needs to be a specific mental health absence code to ensure that young people do not get penalised for health-related absence,’ Nil continues.

‘The Department for Education’s next attendance guidance must introduce this and ensure that young people with mental health problems get adequate support in and outside of school. The next government must create a brighter future for our young people.’

*Name changed for anonymity.

Need support?

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

If you're a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.

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