Peter Pan to PLC?
Much has been written recently about millennials in the workplace. With a reputation for being tech-savvy, purpose-driven and energetic, this segment of the workforce represents potential gold dust for many organisations as they scramble to secure and retain top talent. None more so than at this time of year when the frenzied jostling amongst ambitious undergrads to attract the attention of recruiters and to secure their place on one of the UK’s prestigious graduate schemes is in full swing. Students carefully craft CVs which demonstrate desirable skills and attributes with stand-out features which will set them apart from peers, whilst organisations seek to prove they are the “coolest” with their funky offices, free food and coloured bean bags. These millennials are poised for action as the starting gun fires on their careers.
However, in spite of all the generational upsides, just how well prepared are these new graduates for the rigours of working life? And how effective are organisations in preparing these bright sparks to make a smooth transition from academic life to the workplace. Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that this cohort represents considerable potential to organisations, if we are going to facilitate their performance over a sustained period of time, we too need to adapt our focus on their development from the outset. Why So?
The American Psychological Association states that millennials experience more stress which they are less equipped to manage than previous generations. 50% report that stress affects their sleep and 2/3rds report recent anxiety symptoms. There are several theories as to why this may be the case. Much has been written about erratic sleep habits amongst students and it is a fact that poor sleep generates a physiological stress response which contributes to anxiety and emotional fragility. In addition, new graduates struggle to negotiate the subtle shift away from discrete, well-defined measurement of success (essay and exam grades) to the broader work-based outcome measures with a longer feedback loop. This can lead new graduates, looking to make short-term impact, to experience self-doubt and heightened stress.
Helicopters and Gadgets Don’t Come to The Rescue
Added to this there is evidence of an increase in the so-called “helicopter parenting”, creating a dearth of opportunity to experiment and “fail” in the younger years, which may have effectively stunted the mental and emotional resilience of many of the current generation about to enter the workplace.
Simon Sinek’s analysis of millennials recently went viral highlighting the physical and psychological aspects which play a part as well as the rise in social media and immediacy. The tech-focus of millennials leads to an omni-connectivity with many of them reporting being constantly on-line. This persistent digital multi-tasking, flitting between multiple activities in search of a quick dopamine fix, has been demonstrated to have a direct negative impact on productivity. The consequent effects on sleep quantity and quality as well as a lack of real down-time in which to switch off and recharge impinge on day-to-day performance.
Lastly, there is much to suggest that, whilst this generation in the workforce is more health-conscious than its predecessors, the flip side of this may be a tendency to embrace pseudo-scientific initiatives, rather than understanding and implementing strategies to maximise physical health and energy levels which are based on sound evidence-based research.
Getting Fit for the Long Haul?
A successful and fulfilling career demands investment, not merely in the acquisition of knowledge and skill, but also in habits and practices that underpin career longevity and sustainable productivity. With the steady increase in retirement age, our grads need to be prepared for sustainable performance. It’s a marathon not a sprint. In order to accomplish this, alongside traditional leadership training, we need to make the right investments into their physical and mental wellbeing. We need to develop practices which enable our graduates to make meaningful and sustainable contributions to the businesses in which they land. We may need to adapt our practices too.
In a recent interview, Dame Ellen MacArthur, the record-breaking yachtswoman who sailed solo around the world, spoke about her experiences of being in the race for the long haul. Of how she spent day after day navigating and planning ahead to ensure that every aspect of the voyage was negotiated with precision to maximise the conditions for success. Not merely keeping her vessel well-maintained, but also taking pains to negotiate weather conditions and meticulously optimising every detail to ensure she reaped the performance edge in order to be the fastest to cross the finish.
Organisations can invest in ensuring that all aspects of the graduate transition are negotiated with such precision. By providing training which incorporates an understanding of how to maintain the best physical condition and teaching mental resilience to our graduates we can give them a framework for navigating the choppy waters of the workplace. We can support them to manage themselves effectively as the necessary prerequisite to effectively management of others.
Graduate and early management training programmes would do well to incorporate educational modules which include the physical building blocks of consistent high performance – diet, sleep, exercise as well as the key principles that underpin robust mental health and resilience. Only then we will have graduates who are not just fit for purpose but can truly thrive in the workplace and be successful in leading others.
Dr Sarah Hattam is a GP in West Yorkshire and is Director of Concilio Health, an organisational health consultancy specialising in applying health research to improve performance in the workplace