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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Meeting the needs of young workers

Jamie Gibson links the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness to the growing rates of stress and anxiety in young workers and looks at what to do about it.

Young workers, like everyone, have three psychological needs—autonomy, competence and relatedness—which psychologist Professor Edward Deci says are the three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. When these needs aren’t met, we all struggle to be productive, healthy and happy.

These needs are key to motivation and essential for psychological health and wellbeing—and employers can do more to support them. The growing conversations about health and wellbeing bring an opportunity for leaders and managers to lead by example in meeting these needs.


Autonomy. To have autonomy is to act in accordance with one’s true self—to choose one’s behaviour. For many young workers, having choice and control in what they are doing and how it’s being done isn’t common.

I chatted with Scarlett (name altered) who is a crisis worker. Her role is demanding and she feels the value she brings to the organisation isn’t always recognised. She has limited choice because the crisis worker role is seen as being at the bottom of the organisation. “What’s expected of us is huge, yet we’re at the bottom and our pay reflects this,” she says. “This can lead to not having control in many aspects of our role or to be able to rightfully fight for what we think the job is worth.”

This lack of control manifests as stress for Scarlett and is illustrative of previous studies, such as Australian professor and scientist Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Studies. Conducted in the 1970s, the Whitehall Studies were designed to assess health implications based on social status, and investigated the social determinants of health—specifically cardiovascular disease and mortality rates—among British Civil Servants. The studies found that the lower an employee ranked in the hierarchy, the higher their stress levels.

Marmot eventually discovered that having no control over your work meant you’re more likely to feel stressed and depressed. These feelings are also found with Flynn, a customer experience specialist at an accounting firm. “I am not currently in a role that I enjoy,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I am wasting my time and should be focusing on a career that will bring me happiness. This can lead to me becoming uninterested and not giving my all to my position.”

It’s clear when autonomy and choice is stripped away, stress is inevitable and it’s hard to create meaningful work for ourselves when we have no control over it. A young worker often has limited control.

Competence. Professor Deci, the director of the University of Rochester’s human motivation programme, says feelings of competence result when a person takes on and, in his or her own view, meets optimal challenges. Feelings of competence in young workers help their job satisfaction, increase their sense of accomplishment and reduce stress and anxiety. Personality psychologist Robert White says “people yearn so strongly to feel competent or effective in their environment that competence could be thought of as a fundamental human need.”

Yet feelings of competence can be hard to come by for a young worker because they’re either presented with too big a challenge with unrealistic expectations or they aren’t challenged at all.

Rebecca (name altered) feels under-utilised at her creative design agency and can be left with tasks that aren’t challenging enough. She told me: “The constant self doubt stems from feeling so under-utilised with no opportunity to grow or prove yourself. When you know you have so much to offer the company and can see where you want to be, it’s hard to keep yourself motivated.”

On the other hand, architect Michael (name altered) can be challenged too much and often needs to work long hours. Michael says: “It’s hard to maintain a level of efficiency when your knowledge is still so fresh. Expectations, pressures and management of project delivery are hard to come to grips with and there never seems to be enough time in the day.”

Whether there are feelings of not reaching one’s potential or being pushed too hard, both can result in lower feelings of competence and accomplishment. Many young workers find themselves in similar positions and this increases the likelihood of stress and anxiety. Of course, young workers understand not every task they’re given needs to meet the level of optimal challenge, but if handed more—and given appropriate support—we could see a reduction in stress and greater satisfaction.

Relatedness. We all need to feel connected as well as autonomous and competent. Professor Deci calls this relatedness— “the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for.”

I was once a professional cricketer and in some sporting environments I found myself in positions where younger player weren’t always cared for. Some older players can be worried about keeping their position in the side and treat young players dismissively. And once you find yourself on the outside of the team, management can lose sight of the basic feeling of care one needs. This enhanced my anxiety and made me work harder to impress.

Although sporting environments are challenging and often ruthless, it is no different to many other working environments. Scarlett also finds it challenging to connect with the organisation. She told me: “Because we don’t have day-to-day work and it’s not an office environment we can feel disconnected from the rest of the organisation, which makes you feel like you can’t voice issues as much. We work through challenging shifts and don’t always feel recognised for our efforts.”

Letting young workers know you truly care for their wellbeing and the efforts they’re putting in can have a positive impact to reduce their stress and anxiety.


Young workers in New Zealand are facing increased levels of stress and anxiety. According to the Ministry of Health’s New Zealand Health Survey 2015/16 studies, 8.8 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds are under high psychological distress, while 8.4 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are too.

These high levels of psychological distress indicate people have a greater chance of an anxiety or depressive disorder. The percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds struggling with mental health has been steadily increasing, affecting five percent five years ago, 8.8 percent in the 2015/2016 year, and 11.8 percent in the past year.

If you sense a young worker is stressed you’re probably right. Open the communication lines before they’re stressed and anxious so when they do feel that way, which they will at some point, they will come to you. Ponder if they’re unusually quiet, tired, not engaged, using a stimulus like alcohol to relieve stress or are raising their voice and seem on edge. When you approach them keep it casual and talk where they will feel relaxed. You can then ask them questions like:

  • • 
    How are you feeling? Life okay?
  • • 
    You seem a little on edge lately, is there anything I can do to help?
  • • 
    You’ve been a bit quiet the past week, is everything okay?

Remember to encourage the young worker to seek professional care if you feel it’s something you can’t help with. The Mental Health Foundation has plenty of resources and advice for both the manager and the employee.


Professor Deci says: “The question is not how can people motivate others, but how can people create the conditions in which others can motivate themselves?” Let’s take a look at how this can be done.

  • • 
    Praise. Like any person, young workers need praise—just be cautious that it isn’t used to control them. To feel an increase in wellbeing and motivation it’s important your young employees feel in control of what they’ve achieved and it wasn’t forced upon them by a manager. Simple phrases like “You’ve done very well and we really appreciate your hard work” will boost enjoyment and feelings of competence, resulting in more loyalty to your organisation.
  • • 
    Encourage them to look after their wellbeing. Wellbeing is crucial for a happy and productive employee and managers need to support this. Young workers will be stressed finding their way and a lot of them will be mindful they need to look after themselves. Encourage them to do so. Let them run, do yoga at lunchtime, start an hour late and finish later to catch up on some sleep. You will find they will work much better, accomplish more and be happy to work for (and with) you.
  • • 
    Give them some choice. Managers can play a significant role in creating meaningful jobs for young workers just by asking. Professor and author Adam Grant talks about job crafting in his book Give and Take. He says give your employees the opportunity to craft parts of their job so they’re working on tasks they find interesting, meaningful or developmental. A good place to do this is during onboarding. Ask your young worker when they felt most energised and challenged in their previous jobs or studies, ask about their favourite projects and passions. You may learn something useful they can do for you—and they may just love it.
  • • 
    Let them contribute. You don’t want to be losing out on their talents simply because they’re “young”. Include them in important meetings and brainstorming sessions they haven’t sat in before and get a fresh perspective. You could ask them what they think is in need of change in the organisation. This will make them feel valued.
  • • 
    Have their back. Young workers will be feeling the heat regularly. Relieve their stress by letting them know you’re in their corner and you truly care about them. Stick up for them and you may be pleasantly surprised how long they hang around.


The risk of stress and anxiety overwhelming young workers is high, yet it’s relatively simple for employers to reduce this risk. Small changes can make a big difference. For the most part young employees want to feel they have choices, that they’re valued, and can see optimal challenges and development along the way.

Some of the pressures young workers face aren’t the same as previous generations—with the rise of technology, for example, social comparison is rife. They need managers who recognise their efforts, help them develop and are aware of the pressures they face. If you can do this, you will find yourself a thriving and happy young worker.

JAMIE GIBSON is a 24-year-old working as Head of Wellness and Social Purpose at Redvespa in Wellington. He also co-founded Zeno Project, a wellbeing enterprise helping businesses with their wellness initiatives.

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