Supporting Youth Mental Well-Being

In the majority of the conversations we had while researching and developing this framework, supporting youth’s mental well-being was identified as a key area of priority. The following points are drawn from those conversations, and from youths’ responses to the question: “how can we help maintain young people’s mental health as they transition into the workforce?”


Set realistic expectations.

“I think the biggest part of why I was feeling like shit the whole time was that I knew I wasn’t making it up to their standards even though I felt like I should have been.” (Youth Interview Participant)

First off, young people identified that collaboratively setting realistic expectations with their supervisors was a big help in reducing workplace stress. What do we mean by this? Sitting down with an employer or supervisor and defining, together, the young person’s role and responsibilities—with input from both parties. The youth likely has an idea of what a reasonable workload looks like for them, and what they will be able to accomplish in a given period of time, while the employer almost certainly has an idea of what they hope the youth will accomplish. Determining from the start if there are conflicts between those two perspectives and figuring out how to create balance can help prevent unnecessary stress and burnout for youth, and ensure that employers have realistic expectations of what they’ll be able to accomplish.

“I think a lot of young peoples’ relationships with deadlines … are school related—where you don’t make the deadline and you lose this amount off your grade. In the workplace, if you don’t meet the deadline, it’s probably because it was an unrealistic deadline. … You’re working with a set amount of hours in the day.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Maintaining flexibility and open communication around those expectations as the work goes on is equally important. Young employees should feel confident telling their supervisors when they have too much on their plates, and know that their supervisors will work with them to help them manage their tasks. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • When onboarding young employees, set aside time early on to sit down and talk through the job description and expectations. During this conversation:
    • Clearly point out which expectations or responsibilities outlined in the youth’s job description are flexible and which are not.
    • Ask them about their typical working style, and what they think reasonable expectations are for their workload. 
    • Ask the young person what support they think they’ll need to complete their tasks, and check back in regularly to see if that answer has changed.
    • In addition to asking the young person what they need, offer support proactively. Some youth may feel like they’re letting their employer down or fear that they’ll be reprimanded for asking for accommodations of support. Offering it proactively can help them feel more comfortable accepting the support they might need. 
    • If there are specific deadlines the youth needs to meet, ask whether or not those deadlines seem reasonable; if they don’t and you have the capacity to change them, do! If changing the deadline is impossible, chat about what support you could offer that would be helpful.
    • Offer space for the youth to communicate any questions or concerns. Some youth may not be able to answer some of your questions in the moment, and may need some additional time to think things over in order to offer a clear picture of their expectations, hopes, or needs—it’s always a good idea to offer that time before you’re asked for it, and make sure you build time into the onboarding process to account for it. 
  • Check in on a regular basis about workload and expectations, and make changes or offer support as necessary. That support could be as simple as taking something off a youth’s plate! Employees should be capable of turning down tasks when they are at capacity, but they may feel nervous or insecure asking—as an employer, you can lead by example and offer the option proactively if you think it would benefit them.
  • Offer flexibility with schedules and routines whenever possible, especially in the beginning as young people adapt to a new work environment. 

Know how to talk about it.

Today’s youth are perhaps the most literate generation when it comes to knowing how to talk about mental health, having grown up surrounded by increased awareness and efforts to break stigma. Unfortunately, they are also some of those feeling the impacts of mental health struggles most prominently. A survey put out by Statistics Canada in 2019 found that only “40% of Canadian youth aged 15 to 24 reported having excellent or very good mental health in late March and early April 2020, compared with 62% in 2018,” which is the largest drop in percentage from previous years across all age groups. The significance of the drop is almost certainly an impact of Covid-19 given the study’s time frame, but even before the pandemic, we were seeing a general decline in youth mental well-being. By age 25, 1 in 5 youth will also have experienced or will be experiencing a mental illness (if you’re unsure about the difference between mental health and mental illness, here’s a quick explanation from our friends at Jack.Org). As such, when bringing youth into your organization, being able to engage in hard conversations about mental health, stress, and mental illness is essential, as is knowing how to support those around you. Part of this practice, as well, is being able to recognize when supporting a young person is beyond your scope or when it would put you at unecessary risk; this is why we recommend knowing your local and virtual resources, so you can take care in refering the young person to someone who does have the capacity to offer them the support they need. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Ensure that all staff (including management and supervisors) receive high quality mental health education. One course we highly recommend is the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid course for adults who interact with youth.
  • Know what you can and cannot ask an employee in relation to their mental health, or a mental illness. This guide from Mental Health Works covers everything you need to know in regard to those legalities, as well as information about responding to disclosures, offering accommodations, and more. The CEI, in partnership with TEAMworks and Phoenix Youth, also hosted this panel on supporting youth to share about mental health with their employers.
  • Set an example—if you’re telling your employees to set good boundaries and take care of themselves, make sure you’re doing those things as well. Make use of mental health days. Be open about not feeling 100% all of the time. 
  • Be aware of common stereotypes (eg, that someone struggling with their mental health or a mental illness can’t hold a job, that they’re unreliable, that they lack judgment…), and ensure that you’re not perpetuating them. If they come up among employees, actively work to counter and dispel them. There should be no tolerance for discrimination within your organization, and that fact should be clearly communicated to all.
  • Know your local and virtual resources, so you can direct youth to support services if they need them. Figure out which services are available for youth in your area, what the processes are for accessing them, whether they have a cost, and if they accept your organization’s insurance. Keeping an up-to-date list somewhere visible in the office and having some brochures on hand is a great idea! If you’re stumped about where to start looking, we suggest chatting with a local mental health worker, nurse, or doctor; or, to start searching online, try for a searchable catalogue of services. 
  • Some workplaces have access to toll-free support numbers through their insurance companies or as an added support through human resources or workplace safety departments. If your workplace has access to a number like this, make sure that it is advertised to all employees and that it is clearly displayed in high-traffic areas or online hubs.

“One thing that comes up a lot with youth that I talk to is they try to access mental supports and they say well, I called this number, they told me to call this number, and now I’m on a three-month waiting list and I need this help now. Or, I tried calling this number for support and now they’re out of service.” (OES Interviewee)


Know how to recognize burnout (and prevent it).

One of the more common mental health struggles impacting young workers is burnout: “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress” that can impact our ability to function ‘as usual’ at work or in other parts of our lives. Stress that is usually tolerable becomes difficult to process, and the brain struggles to take in new information. While burnout is often a ‘taboo’ topic, a study put out by Abacus Data at the end of 2021 found that 1 in 3 Canadian workers felt burned out, and that percentage grew to more than half when looking at youth respondents aged 18-29. In our own surveys, interviews, and focus groups youth identified that they often have trouble setting boundaries to protect themselves from burnout at work—because many of them have never been taught how, and because they’re afraid that setting those boundaries and saying ‘no’ might cost them their job. Our secondary and post-secondary systems teach youth to work in a very specific way that isn’t realistic in a workplace—e.g., glamourizing all-nighters and overloaded schedules—and so employers should be aware of what burnout looks like, and know how to prevent and address it. 

“A lot of young people are afraid to say no, or hey, I don’t have the capacity to take this on, because they haven’t really been taught that.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Many of the tips for integrating this recommendation into your work can be found in the previous section (resource awareness, open conversations, etc.), but in addition… 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Understand the early signs and symptoms of burnout so you can recognize them if they show up for your youth. This article from the Canadian Association of Mental Health (also linked above) offers a good initial overview of career burnout, and what to look for.
  • Don’t encourage or glamourize overtime—instead, encourage all employees to make use of their vacation and personal days, and normalize saying ‘no’ to projects that will overload someone’s schedule. 
  • When you do recognize burnout, ensure that you’re offering support where you can. Some people may need to take some time and step back, while others may just need additional accommodations to lessen their stress at work. Asking the young person what they need is always the best approach, but some accommodations you could suggest if they aren’t sure might include: taking something off their plate, creating a schedule or routine that allows for frequent breaks, or supporting them to take on more fulfilling tasks. This list from Calm highlights some other means of support as well.

Address the root cause, and avoid performative “solutions.”

“If you’re seeing oh, this employee’s burnt out—don’t bring a puppy into the office—improve the material conditions, and then maybe bring a puppy into the office just because it’s a nice thing to do. Not because it’s something you can do to ease the burden that you’re putting on somebody.” (Youth Interview Participant)

The most common response we received from young people when we asked what employers could do to support their mental health was to ensure the material conditions that supported their mental well-being were there. You can talk about well-being as much as you want, but if the conditions that support it aren’t met, then the conversations are useless. The material conditions youth specified were:

1. A living wage. Some of the key stressors young people face are related to finances. Many early career jobs offer minimum wage, which sits well below what is considered to be a living wage—the amount that’s required to live comfortably in a given area. In Nova Scotia, the most recent living wage calculations released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (2021) are:

    • $21.30: Annapolis Valley (Annapolis, Kings, and Hants counties) 
    • $18.45: Cape Breton (Cape Breton, Inverness, Richmond and Victoria counties) 
    • $22.05: Halifax (Halifax County)
    • $19.20: Northern (Antigonish, Colchester, Cumberland, Guysborough, and Pictou counties)
    • $21.03: Southern (Digby, Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, and Yarmouth counties)

And yet, the minimum wage in NS isn’t scheduled to reach even $15 before 2024. As a result, many young people end up stretching themselves thin and working multiple jobs just so they can pay rent, buy groceries, and afford transportation. One youth interview participant summed up this point quite nicely: 

“Of course your employee’s stressed if they’re working their ass off at your job and then can’t afford to pay rent.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Youth also stated that earning a living wage contributed to their ability to find a work-life balance—something that’s hard to come by when you’re having to work multiple jobs, or take on extra hours in order to get by. Having time for oneself is vital to maintaining well-being. Statistics Canada data supports these findings, as their survey results show that youth living in low-income households were 14% less likely to rate their overall and mental well-being as very good or excellent. In addition to improving mental well-being, a living wage can also be a key motivational factor—adequate pay helps youth feel like their work is valued, which can lead to them speaking up more and becoming more invested in the projects they’re working on.

“I’ve never really felt like a job was actually improving my life past getting a paycheck, which in some ways is good, but it has to be a good tradeoff between time and what you’re being paid … I’m not super fond of admitting it, but I’ve felt a lot better about myself while getting EI and having time to do the things I enjoy while also not scrounging for money all the time.” (Youth Interview Participant)

2. Mental health days. The youth we spoke with also highlighted the impact of mental health days. Being able to take time off to prioritize their mental health without having to explain why was something they thought should be low-hanging fruit for employers, and something that they told us would be beneficial to mitigating stress and prioritizing self-care. The key here is not having to explain why—youth shouldn’t need to disclose mental illness or tell their employer the gritty details of their struggles in order to access the time off. In order to be effective, mental health days should be given without question, and without qualification. Having time off that’s specifically designated for mental health can also have a positive impact on attitudes towards mental health and well-being amongst employees, and help reduce stigma. Even if your organization doesn’t offer time off that’s specifically denoted as “mental health days,” ensuring that the time off you do offer is flexible and (again) offered no-questions-asked is one way to make your existing practices more supportive. 

Ensuring that young employees are informed about their time off and what they need to do to access it is also important. Because mental health and mental illness are often highly stigmatized topics, youth might be hesitant to ask for time off if they think they’ll need to explain themselves, or, they may not be sure what they’re allowed to take time off for. Explaining these things when you first bring youth on board and housing the information somewhere easy to find can help mitigate these potential qualms. Ensuring that employees aren’t guilted into coming in when they’re struggling is also important; an organization being short-staffed is never the fault of the employee, and they shouldn’t be made to feel as such.

3. Benefits. In addition to mental health days, youth also identified other benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance (that includes mental health coverage) as significant factors contributing to well-being within and outside of the workplace. Therapy is expensive! So’s going to the dentist, and filling prescriptions… providing benefits not only means that youth employees can access mental health care if they need it, but it also makes taking care of their physical health (which absolutely has an impact on mental health) easier, and less financially stressful.

Take a trauma-informed approach.

Something else that young people are looking for from the organizations they engage with is that they’re trauma-informed. Understanding the universality of trauma, especially in the wake of Covid-19, the climate crisis, the housing crisis, etc., is an important step in supporting and understanding youth mental well-being.

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Understand what trauma looks like, and recognize that everyone—regardless of profession, age, or other traits—can experience trauma. One of our Youth Advisory Group members, Sydney, created this infographic that covers all the basics.
  • While we recognize that a trauma-informed approach is important, the CEI is not an expert in trauma-informed practice, so we recommend you take a look at some resources from the experts! 

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