Millennials under stress—an ethical red flag?

Almost everyone these days suffers from some form of stress. A few psychologists even argue being human is to suffer stress.

But then some of them will say anything for a headline. The real issue is the strong evidence of Millennials experiencing more than their fair share of stress.

They’re young enough to handle it” may be one insensitive reaction of older generations. But the facts are more confronting.

Millennials are significantly more stressed than the average stress levels. Older generations struggle less with the problem—see chart.


While this is based on US data, there’s no reason to think it’s different elsewhere. Thanks to a globalised economy and digital connectivity Millennials are the first global generation sharing more values and traits than any cohort before them.

For example a 2013 study by JWTIntelligence of 1,640 Millennials, aged aged 18-35 in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) found:

“Life is getting more stressful! 53% of Millennials say their stress level has increased over the past year. Their finances and the cost of living are the chief stressors; pollution, food safety and climate change stand out as major concerns in China.”

Similarly a SunLife Financial study in Canada showed a staggering 90 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 feel “overwhelmed” and experiencing “excessive stress. A second health study showed that feeling anxious about employment had a direct connection to one’s health.

Nor is this the full picture. As for anxiety and depression Millennials are also more likely to suffer than older generations. Nearly one in five has been clinically diagnosed with depression.

High stress levels are a concern when it comes to ethics and ethical decision making both at employee level and as leaders setting the tone for organisations and pursuing important core values.

Now that many are in, or soon moving into, senior leadership roles, those concerned with governance need to start paying attention to how stress could adversely affect the Millennials’ work patterns and choices.

Many of today’s ethical dilemmas facing leaders in companies for instance, need clear thinking and an ability to stand back and view situations calmly, taking a longer term view. A stressed out person is simply not in a good place to do that.

Too much stress and there’s a serious danger of making misjudgements, or for example, missing the relevance of risk factors that could damage a company’s reputation.

Tougher still for Millennial women

The most stressed out Millennials are young 20-something women–see chart.Millennials16

Partly it’s because they’re doing what comes naturally—multi tasking. They tend to wear several hats, act as “natural” caretakers, and are socialized to take care of others.

They frequently devote much of their precious physical and emotional energy to family, work, and their household, while neglecting themselves. But those who neglect themselves are unlikely to focus on how core values like ethics play out in day-to-day often complex business situations.

This is no reason for organisations to treat women as second class citizens. Instead, it’s a clear sign more attention needs to go on how a company that wants to use the full potential of women must take stress amongst its Millennials seriously.

Millennials8So why are women Millennials in particular so stressed out? The main reason is their great need to excel at work. To compete with men they often have to do even better than would be expected of a man.

This is far from the popular image of the laid back Millennial as someone with a dubious work ethic and a determination to have a good work life balance.

While normally a healthy sign, the urge to excel can easily turn toxic.

It can lead women to ignore personal needs, causing them to become physically and emotionally drained. Again, this is a poor recipe for tackling serious ethical choices,  though women’s natural instincts may still come to the rescue on many occasions.

People Skills

Making ethical choices requires good people skills of listening, empathy and a readiness to “hear” others’ opinions. Stressed out people are not the best placed to deal with such situations and even without taking into account stress, employers are fearful of the future:Millennials18

Stress factors

While money and job advances play an important part in creating stress, there’s one factor positively unique to Millennials—technology.

The commonly accepted idea that only older generations have trouble coping with technology advances is wrong.

Millennials too find it difficult, as the near complete shift to digital technologies continues to make an impact, even though this later generation grew up with the forces at work.


Computers for example, do not have a human rhythm. And the 24/7 communication life that technology has ushered in, has a profound affect on how people experience themselves and one another. Millennials are no exception to that.

When it comes to corporate culture and ethical choices, digital technology poses yet another layer of complexity and uncertainty.

In one sense millennials are the best equipped to cope with this situation. In another their notable stress levels, their anxiety and need to know just who they are, add another dimension of difficulty in dealing with hard ethical choices in the business setting.

The recent mindfulness movement for example, seems aimed directly at the stressed out Millennials. It helps them to slow down, pay attention, and interact with those around them. Millennials are reputedly bad at these and co-incidentally they are the exact behaviours that produce good ethical choices.

Another benefit of mindfulness, yoga or any of the other de-stressing techniques now widely acceptable within business, is they help people learn three important ways of being:

What objective compassion might look like
Understand how to exercise compassionate authority
Use power to lift spirits up, rather than to oppress

All of these can help the pressured new Millennial leaders for example, to tackle ethical choices more effectively.

What’s coming

Overall, the evidence suggests regardless of age all employees suffer from pressure and stress, Experts remain divided on whether the levels experienced by Millennials leaves them especially ill-equipped to handle difficult choices in the future, including the all important ethical ones.

For example, an extensive and fascinating look ahead by the Pew research Centre to the year 2020, found four out ten experts and stakeholders with a negative view about what Millennials are bringing to the workplace.

While a majority (55%) were far more optimistic, suggesting Millennials are

“…more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the internet.”

Other predictions of the near future suggest technology will become seamless, augmenting how people work in an almost invisible way.

“You can’t talk about Millennials or multi-generational workforces without bringing up Kronktechnology which is having a multiplier effect on ethical issues. It raises the stakes for everyone.”
Adam Kronk, Programme Director, Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership.”

One important effect around ethics in business will be people having difficulty deciding what they themselves think and feel, rather than being influenced by the tool they’re using.

When that happens, will the new Millennial leaders for example, find themselves handing over difficult ethical choices to machines?

We already have glimpses of this hidden transfer in the development of self-drive cars. Faced with hitting a child or an adult, or of “saving” one person instead of several from injury, cars are in effect making ethical choices.


For those concerned with ethical issues in companies, for example leadership, and those in governance generally and compliance, what does the present stress story of Millennials really mean?

The answer is more in the way of look for “red flags”—the danger signs, than absolute answers. It’s a case of what to look for where difficulty choices inevitably occur. While a check list is an over simplification, here are 10 important question promptsMillennials chart4

[symple_toggle title=”Sources” state=”closed”]

1. Stress in America ™ Paying With Our Health, FEB 2015, American Psychological Society
K. Loria, It’s official: millennials are the most stressed-out generation, Business Insider, UK, Feb 6, 2015
Tsintziras, Millennials And Anxiety: Is Generation Y Anxious? The Huffington Post Canada, July 26 2013
JWTIntelligence explores BRIC Millennials 24 September 2013
J. Anderson, and L. Raine, Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyper connected lives, Pew research Centre, Feb 2012
6. Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers: Who’s working at your company and what do they think about ethics? National Business Ethics Survey, Ethics Resource Centre, 2009,
7. K.Taylor, Why Millennials Are Ending The 9 To 5, Forbes, Aug 23 2013
8. Will the Millennials be more ethical leaders in business?,, 5th May 2015
9 Ethical Leadership: Facing the Challenges on the Front Line, Wall Street Journal 11th June 2015




Top image David Castillo Dominici,


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