- Young people are stressed out in the workplace and are struggling to cope.
- Avoidance behavior (such as missing class or work) stems from anxious what-if thinking.
- When avoidance behavior is reinforced and strengthened, it is more difficult to overcome.
When Gen Z (people born between 1995-2012) arrived, technology was already in full swing, with 33 percent of Gen Zs spending more than six hours a day on their cell phones, much of it on social media M. Daniyal (2022). This has led to the social comparison that often leaves people not feeling enough in a variety of ways. In fact, according to J. Twenge and K. Campbell (2019), young people who use digital media for more than five hours a day (heavy users) are 48 percent to 171 percent more prone to being unhappy and being in a state of low well-being, including depression and even suicidal ideation. Heavy digital media users were also twice as likely to have reported attempting suicide.
In addition, Gen Z has had to deal with a turbulent political climate, ongoing environmental issues, and various economic downturns, with 39 percent of them reporting fear of financial insecurity as their number one stressor (N. Mujibah and N. Faizah, 2023).
And, if this isn't enough good news, research has indicated that Gen Z is emerging as the most stressed-out demographic in the workplace (91 percent), and is really struggling to cope. The same data have shown unmanageable stress affects almost a fourth of the Gen Z respondents (23 percent), and almost all (a whopping 98 percent) are struggling to manage symptoms of burnout (Megan Carnegie, 2023). What’s going on?
A lot of unmanaged anxiety. Regardless of the various causes that have landed Gen Z in this place, they can use help in managing the stress and we aren't helping them by encouraging avoidance behavior. Avoidance behavior stems from anxiety and is the brain’s way of attempting to escape the discomfort brought on by fear-based “what if” thinking. Once it becomes a habit it can be very difficult to break. And, if the young person continues to engage in avoidant behavior, they cannot learn that nothing horrible will happen if they cease to do the said behavior, according to psychologist Bridget Flynn Walker, Ph.D., author of Social Anxiety Relief for Teen.
Here is how it works. The worry loop resides in the limbic system part of the brain, the area where the fight-or-flight response is ignited when there is a perceived danger. As the brain does not know the difference between a real or imagined threat, the switch is turned on regardless, of whether it’s for a real physical danger or the fear of not turning in a paper that is due in class that day.
To avoid this discomfort, the young person might skip class or ghost the person they just broke up with to dodge the awkwardness and perceived emotional agony of facing the situation head-on. In the professional world, they may avoid asking a boss for a well-deserved raise, refrain from disclosing a legitimate concern, and quit rather than withstand a face-to-face conversation with a superior. This avoidance behavior is an attempt to alleviate anxiety. Unfortunately, this provides only a temporary solution which in the long term can become debilitating. Here’s why.
Obsessive-compulsive thinking, OCT, is at work. The word disorder has been swapped out for two reasons. First, the word disorder is a shame word, eliciting feelings of being flawed, defective, damaged, and different. Second, by replacing the word disorder with the word thinking, we now have broadened and normalized obsessive-compulsive thinking, which includes all 8 billion of us in the world rather than solely the more severe end of the spectrum. The truth is: There is not one of us out there who has not experienced an intrusive, unwanted thought. Even the Zen monks must have experienced this, and perhaps this unpleasantry is what motivated them to become monks. Makes great sense.
Here is an example of how OCT leads to avoidance behavior. Let’s first start with a very typical, concrete example. Let’s say that Jonathan is a college student on his way to class. He is only about two minutes away when he is overcome by a thought ambush that he forgot to lock the dorm door and he borrowed his roommate’s game station. Panicked “what if” thoughts race through Jonathan’s mind about someone taking the game station, the agony of having to explain this to his roommate, and then the expense of replacing it. Jonathan caves into the OCT and races back to his dorm to check the lock. The second he touches the doorknob and realizes that the door was locked all along, there is an immediate wave of relief. This feeling of relief also reinforces Jonathan’s behavior, as it was rewarded.
This is also how it works with the avoidance behavior that stems from anxiety. When the student has a wave of anxiety prior to class and then misses class to feel less anxious, the behavior has immediately been reinforced and strengthened. It is similar to giving a dog a prime rib bone for sitting. It will now be even tougher the next time the student has a wave of anxiety to walk through the feeling and go to class.
Sadly, college students diagnosed with anxiety across the country are being given accommodations that allow them to leave class as they need, or are permitted to have “flexibility with attendance.” This is not beneficial to young adults and is causing them harm—it makes unbearable thoughts stronger, which in turn leads to behavior that is unsustainable in the professional world. This may also pose a challenge to acquiring and maintaining healthy adult relationships.
The plain and simple truth is that the only way out is through. The only way to learn to do the world is to do the world.
The larger danger that we pose—including well-meaning helicopter parents and educators working with young adults in secondary and higher education—is that each time we enable them to avoid responsibility, we give the message that we don’t believe they can do it. The message: “If we don’t swoop in to protect you, you’ll fail.”
Taken a step further, this can lead to feelings of learned helplessness, isolation, and depression.
As parents, educators, accommodations teams, and managers, we need to make a shift away from enabling our young people, and instead empower them. We need to get a little tougher and let them be redirected by life a little more. It means less coddling and more adventure.
We know all too well that much of our inner strength, courage, and wisdom has emerged from the contrast that life has brought to us. Without contrast, there is no personal growth. And, without personal growth, there is no happiness.
The goal is to produce happy, well-adjusted, and confident young adults who will be well-equipped to contribute to the world and put their own unique fingerprints on it. They will fail at times, and they will be okay.
The Relationship between Cellphone Usage on the Physical and Mental Wellbeing of University Students: A Cross-Sectional Study, International Journal of Environmental Research. M Daniyal, et al, 2022
Twenge JM & Campbell WK (2019). Media use is linked to lower psychological well-being: Evidence from three datasets. Psychiatric Quarterly. 90(2):311-331.
Social Anxiety Relief for Teens, Bridget Flynn Walker, Ph.D.