The Invisible Contract:
23. Aug 2023
Enhancing Well-Being for Young People in the Workplace
Adapting to a new job is a socialization process that requires great awareness from both leader and employee, says former CEO and professional board member Stine Bosse. She advises leaders to look up from their spreadsheets and see the people around them
On May 31, 2023, we launched our mission, ‘A Future where Young People Thrive,’ to design a future for a thriving youth. This interview is the fourth in a series of conversations where we’ll explore key themes, new ideas, and perspectives on mental health and well-being among young people.
By Ulla Dubgaard
Your young colleagues are not alright.
According to a recent global survey from Cigna International Health, 91 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds report being stressed in the workplace. This sad record begs the question: What will the future generation of employees, the financial and social fabric of companies, look like? Something’s got to give for more employees to thrive in the workplace, says one of Denmark’s most experienced business leaders Stine Bosse.
And while leaders bear a significant part of the responsibility to integrate young hires into the workplace, it’s not just on them:
“Being part of a workplace is being part of an invisible community contract. Both employer and employee have a responsibility in this contract. The employee needs to consider: Where are my boundaries? When do I let someone know that I can do more?”
"The leader bears a great responsibility for well-being in the workplace, but on the flip side, young employees need to understand that school is over"
Well-being is a two-way street
What do the numbers from the Cigna survey tell you?
“They’re alarming numbers – especially on a global scale. But I also think we should be cautious using the term ‘stress’. Stress is a diagnosis – being busy is quite different. I’d question whether these numbers indicate true stress. Of course, it’s not good for anyone to be too busy. And it’s not good for young people to be in a rat race at work. When you’re young and new to a workplace, there are many things to get acquainted with and learn. It’s a socialization process to learn to be part of a workplace and a good co-worker. Bottom line: If those numbers are to be believed, there’s an introductory process to the workplace that’s not working.”
So who is fundamentally responsible for well-being in the workplace?
“It’s a two-way street. Enhanced by the fact that we’re seeing low unemployment rates, and thus recruiting is becoming more challenging. When I was active as a manager, I noticed that the employees with the highest absence rates were the trainees. Those numbers tell a story, too. When you’re employed, someone expects you to show up. The leader bears a great responsibility for well-being in the workplace, but on the flip side, young employees need to understand that school is over. Down to the age of 15 or 16, young people need to understand that the world expects something of you.”
"Having a young person in the workplace is a gift. It’s an opportunity to train all employees in listening and being receptive to new ideas"
Forget “same procedure”
What have you done as a leader when you met a young person who wasn’t ready to be in the workplace?
“I took my time introducing and incorporating them into the social structure. I involved them: What do you need to feel safe, seen, and heard? What can we learn from you? If anything, this has only become more necessary today. Young people are more liable to change jobs and won’t put up with anything. That’s healthy – as long as it’s not mom and dad who tells them where their boundaries are.”
Isn’t being part of the social structures at work and being a good co-worker up to the individual?
“They obviously need to be a part of it. As a leader, you can serve the food but can’t make them eat it. But if you want a steady intake of young hires and want that process to be successful, you need to address this. And you need to take the time to ask young people: What can we do to make this a good workplace for you? So we avoid the ‘same procedure’ – trap. Having a young person in the workplace is a gift. It’s an opportunity to train all employees in listening and being receptive to new ideas.”
What hands-on learnings from your career in leadership would you want to pass on to other leaders when it comes to recruiting and retaining young talent?
“The talent you need the most is the ones that find management a nuisance. Give them space to act independently and constantly feed them new challenges. They won’t stay unless they feel they’re growing. On the flip side, you have the young hires that leave because they feel unsafe and unseen. Either way, accept the volatility in recruitment and retention. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as you design your organization to fit that reality.”
"If you keep loosening the thread that holds the workplace together, some will say: Why should I even go to work?"
Balance, movement, awareness
You’ve written and spoken a lot about ‘balanced leadership’. What does that entail?
“I talk about balance, movement, and awareness – those are key to good leadership today. Balance both in your work life and your private life. Balancing profit with a pleasing workplace. Movement means daring to have an emotional connection with your employees, which can be extremely difficult to navigate because it is, to some degree, manipulation. So you have to take great care and show great responsibility. All leaders use emotional connections, but you must be highly conscious of how you use them. The other part of movement is moving your employees, for example, from new hire to colleague. Again, awareness is vital. If you’re unaware that young people are very different, you’ll miss the mark.
Many companies are testing out new, collective initiatives to heighten well-being in the workplace, e.g., a four-day workweek or total independence/self-leadership, which we’ve done at DDC – Danish Design Center. How do you balance these initiatives for the many with consideration for individual needs?
“In my experience, 70 percent of all employees simply want a good job, nice coworkers, and a decent salary. That’s the sum of their ambition. If you keep loosening the thread that holds the workplace together, some will say: Why should I even go to work? Give me a task to solve and colleagues to engage with daily. One should be careful with dissolving too many structures, for work life is also a social life. It’s important, especially for young people, to contribute to a collective result and to make a difference.”
"Well-being is about paying attention to people, not spreadsheets and deadlines"
Show that you care
Looking at the numbers for stress and anxiety, I think we can agree that something needs to change. Where should leaders begin? What does a workplace for a thriving youth look like in 10 years?
“Workplaces, as well as the unions, must understand that you can’t pool all employees at any given time. An employee goes through various life phases and needs vastly different things throughout life. Piecing that puzzle together requires close leadership, where the leader sees the employee and notices if something is amiss. Sometimes, unhappiness is derived from issues in someone’s personal life but expresses itself in the workplace. It is a challenge to tackle that conversation and to build the trust that it requires for the employee to say: ‘I’m getting a divorce. I just want to be left in peace and do my job.’ Or: ‘I’m not happy sitting next to X. I need to be moved somewhere else.’ That trust is key for both leader and employee. Well-being is about paying attention to people, not spreadsheets and deadlines.”
I imagine that this approach can also be quite taxing for a leader, emotionally speaking?
“It requires a mindset where you’re willing to give something of yourself. I remember a situation with a senior employee during the last part of my career. I told the person that I could see that certain situations seemed to trigger a very emotional reaction. The person didn’t explain immediately. But six months later, we spoke again, and the person thanked me and said: ‘I had a personal problem that I needed treatment for. I went into therapy, and now I’m better.’ A leader must be brave enough to have that conversation, but it requires trust so the employee is not afraid to get fired. It needs to come from a place of true empathy. So by all means, use emotional connections, but be decent and show that you care about other people’s feelings.”
About Stine Bosse
Stine Bosse is one of Denmark’s most influential businesspersons. From 2001-2011, she was CEO of insurance corporations Tryg and TrygVesta. Today, she holds several board positions, including chair of the board in PlanBørnefonden, TelePost Greenland, and NunaOil. Financial Times has named Stine Bosse among the most powerful women in Europe several years in a row. In 2010, she was appointed United Nations Advocate for The Millenium Development Goals.
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A Future where Young People Thrive
Imagine this; Young people in Denmark are doing better than ever before. Even with the historic challenges facing this generation, they have never had greater influence or more opportunities to shape their own future. Collectively, we have taken responsibility for providing a framework for young people to thrive
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