‘The trauma-informed workforce’: the impact of adverse childhood experiences on Generation Z in the workplace

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) play a large role in the high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress that Generation Z, or ‘Gen Z’, feels compared to previous generations. Despite being the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in human history, as well as the first to have lived in an age where internet access via smartphones and wireless connection has been widely available, 25% of Gen Z’ers report lower levels of emotional and mental wellbeing than other generations. Having watched from the sidelines Millennials and Baby Boomers suffer from burnout, economic insecurity, and ‘time poverty’, Gen Z are demanding more from the workplaces they are entering. More time off, flexible working, a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility, and most importantly, a real focus on mental health are becoming prerequisites, not nice-to-haves. Research by McKinsey & Company revealed that Gen Z are more likely to report not seeking help for a mental health condition compared to other generations. There are several reasons for this, and this piece will explore the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the wellbeing of Gen Z in the workforce, as well as the action that large companies and governments need to take on it.

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences are typically traumatic or stressful events that happen during the course of someone’s childhood. ACEs take various forms, such as economic hardship or exposure to domestic violence or substance abuse.  Nearly half of the UK population has experienced an ACE, with nearly one in ten experiencing more than four. ACEs can increase the risk of physical health problems in adulthood such as cancer or heart disease and are at increased risk of depression or  PTSD. Going through such traumatic events can also impact victims’ abilities to recognise and manage different emotions, their capacity to make and keep healthy friendships and relationships, and the ability to manage their behaviour in professional settings. The longer an individual experiences an ACE, and the more ACEs a person experiences, the larger an impact it will have on their development and health. For this reason, trauma-informed education and practice are being increasingly cited in policy circles as a means of not only mitigating the negative impact of trauma on mental and physical health outcomes, but also creating a consensus on how organisations can best support people with ACEs.

Trauma-informed education refers to the specific use of knowledge about trauma and its expression in order to modify support for both children and adults to improve their developmental success. Advances in trauma-informed education have helped both researchers and educators understand how ACEs impact the developmental capacities required for success within settings such as the workplace. A study by the University of Melbourne revealed that complex trauma and ACEs were closely associated with a rise in mental health issues, as well as further implications for relationships with other adults later in life. People who have experienced ACEs were more likely to see other people as threats to their safety rather than as peers. In the context of the workplace, companies that are known for their fast-paced and competitive culture can indirectly exacerbate this feeling of threat, leading to an increase in the mental health difficulties of the workforce. Following these findings, the study suggested implementations of strategies to identify and respond to trauma-related risk such as staff training and intervention from third-party organisations.

An example of such a third-party organisation is The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), whose mission is ‘to raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatised children, their families, and their communities’. They aim to do this by offering training, support, and resources to providers who work with children and families. As of present, there has not been a collective or national effort to address the issue of the impact of trauma in workplaces, with private organisations and charities taking the initiative to fill the gap instead, suggesting that more action needs to be taken to instil trauma-informed practices within workplaces hiring large numbers of young professionals.

Trauma-informed education in practice

One such organisation that aims to fill the gap by helping young professionals to address the impact of trauma is Bounce Black. Founded by writer and social entrepreneur, Nikki Adebiyi, the organisation acts as a peer support platform for young black people who are navigating recovery while building a career. Alongside this, Bounce Black also aims to make trauma-informed education more widely accessible and culturally relevant to its audience

“Trauma is like an elastic band – there’s only so far you can go until it starts to hold you back”

Adebiyi has described the events of the past two years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, as a realisation of a ‘state of collective trauma’. Helplessness, uncertainty, and powerlessness in the face of significant life events are the essence of trauma. According to Adebiyi, unprocessed and unresolved trauma (especially from childhood) manifests itself in adult dysfunctionality. ‘Our early years often shape the core of who we are, which we then bring everywhere we go (including the workplace). Trauma is like an elastic band – there’s only so far you can go until it starts to hold you back’, Adebiyi adds.

Adebiyi’s inspiration behind ‘Bounce Black’ came as a result of lived experience, coming from a working class background, and experiencing anxiety and depression at a young age. Research has shown that higher levels of material and cultural deprivation contribute to living circumstances that are conducive to ACE exposure. It must be stressed that children of different races, genders, backgrounds and ethnicities process  ACEs differently, with 61% of black children nationally experiencing at least one ACE, compared with 40% of white children and 23% of Asian children. Individuals of lower socioeconomic status, those growing up in poverty, and those growing up in disadvantaged areas are generally more likely to have experienced an ACE, as well as being more likely to experience more than one. ACEs are more common in females than males, and exposure to ACEs is also intergenerational, with the impacts of parental ACEs resulting in subsequently adverse effects on children. Bounce Black aims to help young black people by giving them the tools and resources to break intergenerational cycles of trauma and end the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community, particularly religious and cultural stigma.

How do ACEs link to Gen Z’s role in the workplace?

The odds of experiencing 4 or more ACEs are higher for Genn Z than any other generation. Nearly a third of them have had at least one ACE, and almost half experiencing more than one ACE. Academics and researchers have stressed that policies are needed in order to prevent ACE exposure and address the potential fallout from the classified ACEs that have seen the largest increases, such as sexual abuse.

‘The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress… I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.’

Companies must demonstrate their commitment to a broader set of societal challenges such as sustainability, climate change, hunger, and inequality. Gen Z is unique for using online platforms in order to raise awareness of issues affecting them, and it is clear how inequalities in mental health provision in the workplace have become a key concern. For example, TikTok has become a key platform for discussing issues of inequality such as toxic workplace culture. Many users of the app make videos highlighting their lack of work/life balance, bullying in the workplace, stalking and drug use, and even struggles of breaking cycles of generational trauma. The significance here is that Gen Z are using platforms like TikTok to expose workplaces for their complacency towards negative working culture. ACEs can often worsen the damaging effects of negative workplace conduct. For example, in a quote made in Goldman Sachs Working Conditions Survey (2021), a junior analyst wrote ‘The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress… I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.’ Childhood trauma manifests itself in adult dysfunctionality, and Gen Z, through the use of social media, are becoming more proactive in exposing and ‘cancelling’ employers that fail to address inequalities of staff treatment within their workplaces, and for business leaders, it is important to consider these findings against the backdrop of a fast-changing world of work, where Gen Z expects workplace cultures, values, and practices to support their yearning for balance and change.

Conclusion

Previous generations assume Gen Z are not prepared for working life. However, as they enter the workforce, it is bosses and managers that will find themselves unprepared for a generation that thinks and works differently than any before. It is crucial for Gen Z to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how their brains/minds work in order to better develop their sense of identity and place within the world. Social enterprises have supported this development in many ways. For example, in October 2020, Bounce Black collaborated with tech-focused social enterprise YSYS (Your Startup, Your Story) in an online event discussing the importance of mental health for young entrepreneurs. Both Adebiyi and Deborah Okenla, founder of YSYS, shared tips and advice during the event on mental health with the online communities they had established, aiming to encourage young people to strive for a healthier, more sustainable pursuit of success. However, in contrast to social enterprises that actively support the psychological development of Gen Z, business leaders need to do more to understand how ACEs and other types of trauma could translate into low productivity, high turnover, and low morale amongst Gen Z workers. 

Compared to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, there has not been enough effort on behalf of private organisations and the country’s largest employers to understand how childhood trauma plays a role in intensifying issues faced by Generation Z in the workplace. As a post-COVID recession looms, these employers will naturally want to avoid high turnover, but yet many are not willing to address the changes in workplace culture needed to meet the expectations of a new generation of workers with a different, and arguably, better idea of what a workplace should look like. Generation Z, many of whom have experienced adverse childhood experiences, demand from their workplaces, not just allyship and ‘surface-level’ mental health services, but a commitment to ensuring that workplaces are a safe place for all. Through an understanding of trauma and its long-term effects, employers will enjoy the benefits of a workforce that is more motivated, more efficient, and ultimately, more profitable.

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