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Burned out and isolated: How to get through to your struggling Gen Z workers

Your youngest workers need guidance and support.

Burned out and isolated: How to get through to your struggling Gen Z workers
[Source photo: Rawpixel]

When my company abruptly left our offices to acclimate to remote work, I initially worried the least about our youngest professionals. I thought that Gen Z, a generation of digital natives, would thrive. It’s surprising, however, to observe that working remotely has been challenging for Gen Zers, who are predicted to make up approximately over one-quarter of the workforce and represent almost one-third of the global population.

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A recent report by Microsoft points that Gen Z is trying hard to stay afloat: “Sixty percent of this generation—those between the ages of 18 and 25—say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling. This generation is more likely to be single and early in their career, making them more likely to feel the impact of isolation, struggle with motivation at work, and lack the financial means to create proper workplaces at home.”

The pandemic has disproportionately affected different people. While most leaders say they’re thriving, younger workers are challenged. For Gen Zers, the opportunity to learn doesn’t feel as rich or as engaging as they were hoping during their first days.

To engage with Gen Z workers, first tap into what is meaningful to this younger cohort. In addition to new styles of working, Gen Z brings greater diversity. As a manager, you’ll want to lead with an inclusive mindset and continuously find ways to leverage this generation’s unique skill set.

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So, how do experienced leaders offer support to Gen Z, bringing out this group’s curiosity and potential? The first step is creating an open dialogue and environment where new ideas are welcome. This encourages young employees to try new things and to view challenges as opportunities and lessons to learn.

Start engaging Gen Z workers by opening up discussion and encouraging sharing. From there, you can work together on addressing more complex and specific obstacles.

Remote work survival skills

Professional skills like self-management and resilience are essential for remote workers. In some ways, people with more experience and established professional networks were provided with a stronger foundation to develop within their pandemic-times roles.

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These leaders also play a crucial role in helping younger employees develop, but some connective tissue was missing. Employees could no longer walk down the hall and brainstorm with a colleague or learn alongside their team, thereby gaining the benefits of “serendipitous moments.”

Ongoing mentoring by colleagues other than managers helps remote employees remain focused when work gets complicated and management is unavailable.

While mature employees are better positioned to self-direct when working through challenges, employees at all levels reported struggling if they were not well-supported. According to the Microsoft report, 41% of employees consider pursuing new jobs, with leaders reporting higher job satisfaction rates than their counterparts—61% of leaders say they’re thriving currently, which is 23% higher than employees who are not in leadership roles.

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According to the same report, employee burnout is up and satisfaction is down, especially for younger employees. Gen Z survey respondents reported they were “more likely to struggle balancing work with life and to feel exhausted after a typical day of work.” Gen Z also reported more difficulty “feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table” when compared with other generations.

While teams have successfully found new ways to work and collaborate remotely, not spending time together has shrunk employee networks and learning and development opportunities. It’s affected relationships, too, all of which is challenging for Gen Z professionals.

As leaders, we need to earn back their attention and enthusiasm.

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Combat digital exhaustion

While employees are connected more than ever, there is a feeling of compression as work/home has limited separation. For example, meetings start and end “with a click” versus a walk to the conference room.

Those in-person occasions fostered connection and helped colleagues warm up to each other, socially. This enables us to experiment with our ideas and share what we’re working on. Innovation needs spaces like this—informal opportunities to chat with smart people who inspire us. It’s in these conversations where we find ourselves in our work. Gen Zers don’t have that opportunity. As a result, it’s harder to connect to their work.

Gen Z professionals are exhausted by their digital experience. They need our attention, focus, input, mentorship. They need human interaction.

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Dig deeper into the employee experience

We need to rethink Gen Zers’ employee experience to unleash their curiosity and strengthen connections. To do so expand, their feedback circle to include more frequent conversations around their work. Try to provide them the resources to build a learning community.

Another key is asking deeper questions to get authentic feedback from employees as you discuss their satisfaction and trajectory: What are you learning? What do you enjoy doing? What do you want to stop doing? How can I support you?

Conduct “stay interviews” to understand what keeps Gen Z employees at work and positioned at your company. Develop your youngest set of workers to grow, which builds relationships, creates loyalty, and makes a thriving culture.

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Build trust and capability

Our Gen Z colleagues are waiting for our involvement. At our company, we also retain our young professionals by listening to them. The Gen Zers in my circles have plenty to teach—and can take up the role of mentors. Reverse mentoring offers them the chance to share their unique skills and experience with their colleagues, so invite into your circle Gen Z’s perspective and expertise. It’s a precious, but often untapped, resource.

Give them opportunities to lead meetings, important conversations, cultural, and team-building activities. Develop young professionals’ skills by demonstrating that you believe in their talent and trust their judgment. Offer them stretch assignments to keep advancing their skills.


Tammy Perkins is the chief people officer of PMI Worldwide. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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