GUEST BLOG: How to better support young people in education and the workplace
By Lizzie Shelmerdine, Recent University of Oxford graduate.
My name is Lizzie Shelmerdine, I graduated from Pate’s Grammar School in 2015 and I’m currently working on the civil service fast stream graduate programme. I also previously took part in a charity graduate scheme similar to Charityworks, which unfortunately no longer runs, and continued to work in that charity for a couple of years before I applied to the civil service fast stream.
While at university I was diagnosed with GAD so that’s something I’ve been managing for several years now. We thought it would be useful for me to chat about some of my experiences of managing my mental health as a graduate employee with the hope that that will be useful for some of you and for your future graduates. Currently I have a number of reasonable adjustments in my role including flexible working, using phone calls rather than video calls, more regular line manager catch-ups, and more social catch-ups with different members of the team.
I’ve got three key pieces of advice I’d love to share with graduate employers working with young people like myself with mental health problems...
CREATE SAFE SPACES
First and foremost, the most valuable thing that someone employing a graduate or a young person just starting their career is to create space to talk about mental health. Make it a part of your culture – it’s okay to take mental health days; it’s encouraged for you to share what you need with your line manager, without fear of being judged. This will probably mean arranging mental health training for line managers etc to make sure they know how to handle those situations, because they’re the first people graduates will speak to about this as their first POC.
I’ve been in workplaces where I’ve seen graduates really struggle when they have not felt able to discuss their mental health issues due to the culture of the workplace, and their work suffers as a result – with one person I knew ultimately dropping out of the programme as their mental health was suffering, they were underperforming, and they weren’t getting any help.
If you want to get the most out of the young people you’re employing, you need to make it safe for them to talk about their mental health.
This is even more important when you’re taking on graduates remotely – you won’t see them as much round and about, so it’s even more important to create a friendly social culture and check up on how they are doing. I’ve started my new role at the civil service in a new city remotely during lockdown– so I’ve got barely any social networks to rely on here. It’s so valuable to have a supportive line manager and team who checks in on how I’m doing throughout the day.
If you don’t understand the situation: ask questions. It sounds obvious, but we can often make assumptions around what someone is experiencing when we hear words like anxiety or depression – when in reality these conditions affect different people in different ways. In order to give that individual the tools they need to succeed, you need to understand what the barriers are. For me, I'm very happy speaking publically, giving presentations and leading training, but too much social pressured work can rapidly lead to an anxiety burnout for me which means my productivity plummets – but that’s not the same for everyone, so make sure you know how someone’s situation is impacting them before suggesting adjustments.
My final point is the need to take action when young people tell you they are going through a difficult time. Make sure you don’t leave the conversation without having actions in place. More than once I’ve had employers really say the right things and empathise, but then finish the conversation by saying “that’s great, thanks for letting me know. Tell me if you need anything” instead of looking into reasonable adjustments or making suggestions, which isn’t helpful and makes me feel like I’m not being listened to.
If someone has come to you with an issue, especially if they haven’t been employed full-time before, chances are they don’t know what to ask for or what support is available in the workplace.
It’s really supportive and helps build a trusting relationship if you are able to help out in that way.
Lizzie is a Pate's alumna and recent University of Oxford graduate. Currently in her first placement on the Civil Service Fast Stream, she has worked in Project Delivery in the third sector for the last two years. Having been diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) in 2016, she is an advocate for student and graduate mental health, and is keen to make workplaces more accessible and inclusive for future generations.