14 ways employers can prioritise students’ mental health

aat comment

Students face unprecedented mental health pressures– so employers need to do all they can to help.

From taking your apprentice for a walk in the park to using more pauses in conversations, here are some expert tips on de-stressing your trainee workforce and creating greater wellbeing in the workplace…

For the trainees and apprentices who have entered the workplace (remotely or otherwise) since 2020, the pandemic has had an incalculable impact on their professional lives, from a lack of soft skills to videoconferencing becoming a regular part of their working week. Perhaps one of the longest-lasting legacies, however, is the toll it’s taken on their mental wellbeing.

Supporting Gen C

Although this demographic (variously termed the ‘Covid generation’, ‘Gen C’ or the ‘Quaranteenies’) were the least likely group to suffer the physical ill-effects of Covid, they disproportionately bear the psychological scars after suffering the biggest educational disruption since World War II and a lack of in-person socialisation during lockdowns. Earlier this year, a study of 13,000 respondents from the Sutton Trust and University College London found that happiness and confidence among young people in the UK had sunk to an all-time low , also draining them of the motivation to study.

Anxiety over global events is hardly helping matters, either. “For these guys, there’s a constant cycle of negativity ranging from conflicts in the Middle East/Ukraine to the climate crisis,” says Ben Bullman, client director and lead safeguarding officer at training provider First Intuition. “Combine that with exam anxiety and the pressures of starting their first full-time job such as the mental and physical exhaustion – which is new to them – and it’s not hard to see how it creates a perfect storm of stresses upon their mental wellbeing.”

Accountancy in danger of burn-out

The profession these new recruits are entering doesn’t fare much better when it comes to mental health: a study by caba (ICAEW’s wellbeing charity) last year found 56% of accountants surveyed said they were suffering with stress and burnout compared with 41% of employees from other sectors.

Despite this, there are signs today’s young trainees/generations are more open about their mental health than previous generations, who viewed sharing such concerns as taboo. They’re also cognisant of how professional stress and overworking can detriment their health, so are increasingly expecting employers to provide ‘mental health days’ (something that 82% of Gen Z-ers want according to 2022 research by workplace training company TalentLMS), counselling and even wellness rooms. “It’s very positive; rather than struggling on if they’re ill, they embrace the things [employers] put in place to help them,” says Claire Hill, head of people operations & recruitment at accountancy firm PKF Francis Clark (recently named one of the UK’s best workplaces for wellbeing by Great Place to Work).

With poor mental health causing 6m sick days in the UK last year, costing the UK economy £105.2bn a year, it’s clear looking after the mental health of staff helps boost business too (introducing policies addressing workplace wellbeing can increase productivity by as much as 12% according to the Mental Health Foundation charity).

Here, three experts from leading organisations share their tips on the steps employers can implement to improve the mental wellbeing of their young trainees/apprentices…

1. Don’t take a tick-box approach

Bullman, First Intuition: “One of the biggest mistakes employers make is asking trainees closed questions [about their mental health], knowing they’ll get a short answer. This enables the boss to tick a box and move on. Employers should be listening non-judgementally and create a feeling of ‘safety’ so trainees feel free to open up.”

2. Offer flexibility around studying

Bullman, First Intuition: “This generation hasn’t had the best experience with exams – their GCSEs and A-Levels during Covid were assessed grades [instead of exams]. The experience of on-demand assessments, which take place in a physical venue, will be new to them. The binary pass/fail nature of professional exams adds more pressure. As an apprentice, they feel accountable to employers if they fail exams. Support should be given for studying and resits. Also avoid careless language, such as telling them, ‘You don’t know you were born – exams were much easier in my day.”

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “We’re noticing the pressure really hits trainees during the build-up to exams, with many suddenly struggling with workloads. Some students have so much anxiety, they’ve been unable to attend offsite premises for assessments. Meanwhile, failing exams has a massive impact on confidence. To tackle this, work closely with them to understand their needs. For example, ensuring they get information from any study sessions they’ve missed.”

Bullman, First Intuition: “Although it’s okay for employers to tell trainees, ‘This is just an exam: there are bigger things in life’, they also need to understand qualifications are hard work. If a trainee is anxious about an upcoming assessment, employers should gently put pressure on, perhaps explaining postponing exams will only worsen their mental health.”

3. Build ‘psychological safety’

Dan Harris, head of financial systems & processes, Devon County Council: “Thankfully the 1970s-style boss has long gone. As an employer today, try to make the workplace as welcoming for trainees/apprentices as possible. Ensure they feel as if they’ve got an important role to play within the team and the opportunity to speak up without judgment.”

4. Watch for early warning signs of stress

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “When trainees start struggling with their mental health, we usually notice a change in their behaviour first: being late, making mistakes, not passing exams, increased sick days, or relationship difficulties with colleagues… Realise there could be triggers behind us. For example, 20 years ago, if an employee was frequently late, many bosses would take the hard line and discipline them, thinking they’ve been partying or can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Thankfully, today, most managers should realise this lateness could be because they’re suffering depression or feel uncomfortable coming in because they’ve failed an exam.”

5. Make time for informal chats

Harris, Devon County Council: “If a trainee’s having troubles, don’t add to their woes by pulling them into an office and placing them onto a performance improvement plan/capability review. Instead, get to the bottom of what’s happening by having an off-the-record conversation, perhaps taking them for a walk in the local park. Managers can’t be everybody’s best friend, but you can support them the best you can.”

Bullman, First Intuition: “If you find a trainee isn’t forthcoming about what’s troubling them, don’t start nosily prying into their personal lives. Instead, strike up an informal conversation with them, perhaps in the office kitchen.”

6. Ask key questions – and remember to pause

Bullman, First Intuition: “Many trainees feel uncomfortable opening up to their bosses. To get them talking, always ask how they’re feeling. At the end of a one-to-one meeting, also ask, ‘Is there anything else?’ There may be an awkward silence of five seconds. Resist the temptation to butt in, as you’ll often find this pause gives the trainee time to reflect, with them telling you, ‘Do you know what, there is something I’d like to talk about…’”

7. Foster wellbeing by hosting events

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “We have Wellbeing Wednesdays, a programme of events/resources focused on physical, mental and financial wellbeing. This can include webinars from sports psychologists or HSBC giving employees financial information on budgeting, retirement planning or buying a home [mental health conditions such as depression have been linked to a lack of depression and worries over finances]. All content is recorded and published on our intranet.”

8. Provide a content hub

Harris, Devon County Council: “We’ve got a ‘People Hub’ on Microsoft SharePoint, which pools together mental health resources for staff, covering wellbeing support for managers, employee assistance programmes, listings of wellbeing events, neurodiversity info and links to external support.”

9. Provide ‘work buddies’ and share experiences

Bullman, First Intuition: “Bosses/managers who share their experiences [of failure or mental health struggles] goes down well with younger people. I talk openly about when I once failed an AAT exam, something trainees are surprised to hear.”

Harris, Devon County Council: “We ‘buddy up’ new apprentices with former apprentices/trainees who can share personal tips on dealing with exams and other stressful situations. Staff simply volunteer their names if they want to be a buddy.” 

10. Create mental health first aiders

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “We have mental health first-aiders [designated employees trained to recognise signs/symptoms of mental health issues and listen empathetically]. It usually involves attending a four-day training course.”

Bullman, First Intuition: “The best money an accountancy practice can spend is sending staff on a mental health first aid course. mhfaengland.org. smhfa.com. mhfawales.org has more info.”

11. Encourage staff to volunteer

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “We also have mental health champions, who are usually enthusiastic employee volunteers with a personal interest in wellbeing. It isn’t a trained role, but they organise initiatives aimed at promoting wellbeing. For example, on Blue Monday [the third Monday in January which is apparently the most ‘depressing’ day of the year], our mental health champions made blue cakes. At other times, they organise walks at lunchtime, and give feedback on how the company is handling mental health.”

12. Probe problems supportively

Brooklyn Hammett, team leader, Devon County Council: “Mention you’ve noticed a certain behaviour or pattern such as lateness emerge, pointing out to them this is out-of-character and gently asking whether there’s a reason this is happening. If they can’t give a reason, that’s fine – they need to recognise you’re there to support them and can truthfully speak to you about what might be going on.”

13. Banish presenteeism – set the right example

Bullman, First Intuition: “Bosses should try to present a positive role model. I’m an early bird, often raring to go at 5.30 am. Does that mean I should be emailing my team at that time? Of course not. If a trainee received an email at 6 am, they could feel latent pressure to perform. Luckily, Outlook allows users to schedule emails. Also, let trainees know it’s okay to switch off Teams/Zoom at lunchtimes or when work finishes, and you don’t expect them to respond to emails during out-of-work hours.”

14. Signpost to professional help

Hill, PKF Francis Clark: “We subscribe to Smart Health through [insurance firm] AIG which offers a portfolio of 24/7 support. Trainees can pick up the phone and book free counselling, as well as access a psychologist. It helps when exams/workloads get a bit much or they’re going through personal issues such as bereavement or break-ups.

Bullman, First Intuition: “We recommend various resources: MFAH, the charity Mind and the Samaritans.”

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

Related articles