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Workplace

Underemployment driving ‘excessive’ anxiety among young workers Add to ...

A turbulent economy and the changing nature of work are stressing Canadians out.

Some 72 per cent of respondents in the Sun Life Financial Inc. annual health survey said they are experiencing ‘‘excessive” levels of anxiety. Employment status is a key source of strain, which explains why younger workers are the most stressed in the country. Ninety per cent of people aged 18 to 24 say they are feeling overwhelmed.

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“Canada’s weak economic recovery – now in its fourth year since the financial crisis of 2008 – is a driver of remarkably high stress levels, particularly among young adults across the country,” the study says.

The good news is stress tends to ebb as people age. But for young people, work is a key source of worry, with nearly four in 10 respondents under the age of 34 describing themselves as underemployed, or not able to make full use of their skills in the workplace, according to the survey of 3,113 Canadians, compiled by Ipsos Reid and to be released Monday.

“This study shows clearly there’s a lot of pressure right now through the workforce, particularly on young people,” said Kevin Dougherty, Sun Life president, in an interview.

That is altering the types of claims Canada’s third-largest life insurer is seeing. Forty per cent of long-term disability claims among young people now relate to mental health – up from 36 per cent five years ago. Among other age groups, that percentage has held steady. The findings underscores the link between work, stress and health, Mr. Dougherty noted. Full-time workers report far lower stress levels than underemployed, unemployed or part-time ones. He calls the rise in claims relating to mental health among young people ‘‘extraordinary” and cites lost productivity as one of many negative offshoots.

Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, cost the economy more than $50-billion a year due to illness, missing wages, lower economic output and higher costs for insurers and health-care providers, according to an estimate last year by the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. Finances and work life are the two biggest sources of anxiety for all Canadians surveyed, the poll shows. Other top sources of stress are personal relationships and personal health issues.

This is the third annual health study the firm has produced, which was based on an Ipsos Reid survey conducted in the first half of July with Canadians between the ages of 18 and 80. The numbers are not comparable with prior years, so it’s tough to gauge whether stress levels have gone up or down in recent years. But comparable numbers on the portion of young people who rate their mental health as “good” show declines in each of the past three years.

Others are also seeing stress among the young. “Pressure is shifting to a younger age cohort, who are trying to get on with their lives, but they’re not having the choices and opportunities that people 10 years ahead of them had,” said Barb Veder, director of clinical research for Shepell fgi, one of Canada’s largest employee-assistance programs.

Student loans and debt are a key source of strain, especially given that many haven’t found the jobs they were hoping for, she added. As a result, “we have more young people staying longer in their parents’ home, and returning to their parents’ home.”

Katherine Kwan is one of them. The 21-year old film studies grad from York University recently moved back in with her folks in Mississauga, Ontario. She’s now juggling contract work after previous salaried positions dried up. One project didn’t pay her on time last month, which meant she couldn’t pay her credit card bill. So she’s had to borrow from her parents.

“I’m starting to rack up debt with my parents,” says Ms. Kwan. “I’ve been struggling to find the next project or to find a stable freelance gig.”

Mr. Dougherty hopes the findings raise awareness about the rising stress levels among workers, younger ones in particular. He’d like to see employers beef up wellness programs in the workplace, and consider expanding support programs to staff that are part-time or temporary (part of Sun Life’s business comes from offering these services to employers).

Q&A: Managing stress

Career expert, author and Globe columnist Barbara Moses was online to answer reader questions about work and stress and how people can move from a state of underemployment to a fulfilling career. Read the discussion here.

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