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After a period of heavy drinking, one forty-something professional woman felt a short-term fix would not be the answer. So, instead of simply attempting “Dry January”, as many drinkers now do, she decided to abstain in December, as well. That way, she reasoned, the prospect of an ascetic new year would not fill her with dread.

When she stopped, she told me recently, there was little ceremony. “My last drink wasn’t a last hurrah, I had two G&Ts, went to bed and thought, ‘That’s that.’” She found the dry spell made her healthier and happier — so much so, she hasn’t touched a drop since.

Alcohol, she realised, had become the way she dealt with feeling overwhelmed by work and family obligations. It numbed her anxiety. And she’s hardly the only one.

In the annual FT-Vitality Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, older workers were significantly more likely to report excessive drinking than their younger peers. And it reflects a broader generational trend. Alcohol is no longer the “norm for more recent generations of young people”, says Bobby Duffy, author of The Generation Divide: Why We Can’t Agree and Why We Should.

As a Gen X-er who grew up at the time of ladette culture, when guzzling pint after pint of lager was seen as striking a blow for equality, I find this heartening.

But, while they might avoid the crutch of alcohol, workers under 35 are much more likely to report depression and burnout than the over-50s.

Line chart of % of employees surveyed who . . .  showing Age, alcohol and mental health

This suggests different generations are responding to stress in wildly different ways: the middle aged numb themselves with wine and vodka, while the young succumb to depression.

Some of the factors blamed for young people’s poor mental health are the recent Covid pandemic, high inflation and unaffordable housing. In addition, there is the rise of smartphones and overprotective parenting — which experts, such as US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, argue have made this generation of young workers less robust than their predecessors.

A 2022 study in Current Psychology, examining how the different generations coped with the Covid pandemic, did indeed find that younger people were less resilient compared with Generation X. But it added that this might not be new: past studies have found that young people are generally less resilient because they are less experienced and not as used to dealing with ambiguity.

The young are also more conversant with mental health issues than their predecessors, helped by increasing openness and sharing problems on social media. Duffy says they “have grown up in a time where discussing mental health challenges has become much more normalised, so it’s no surprise that they are more likely to openly identify as having those challenges.”

Farimah Darbyshire, of workplace mental health non-profit MindForward Alliance, notes that “this generation does have an expectation that employers will support their mental health”. Although there are concerns that younger workers can pathologise the normal ebbs and flows of life, Duffy points out that “it’s a much better position . . . to talk openly about mental health challenges — that’s a clear net benefit”. 

It also appears a better approach than trying to drink your way through it. “Older workers have grown up in a world where alcohol has been completely normalised, and used to self-medicate, or to numb out, difficult feelings,” says Janet Hadley, a human resources consultant who advises workplaces on alcohol policies. People “might not talk openly about mental health or label their inner feelings as anxiety or depression, [but] there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that alcohol is impacting the mental health of people aged 40-plus.”

In some workplaces, however, alcohol dependency is deemed more of a disciplinary issue than a health problem. Just 30 per cent of UK employers offer guidelines to managers on how to support staff with an alcohol problem, according to a 2020 report by human resources body CIPD.

But not all mental health support is effective, either. There may be more understanding by employers of how it affects productivity and more initiatives to support employees. But much of it is so-called “wellness-washing” — where perks, such as mindfulness sessions, serve as a distraction from high workloads, poor management and other structural problems. Darbyshire points out that only a “minority of young professionals feel comfortable accessing support at work for poor mental health”. Barriers including stigma and fears of career repercussions.

Different generations might deal with their problems in contrasting ways — but it seems employers still haven’t figured out how to support them.


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