Kids at work: Helping them negotiate the workplace “jungle”

In the holiday period here in Australia, many young people get casual work. For many, that first causal job flipping burgers, wiping tables, or swiping groceries at the checkout will be their introduction to life in the workplace. The transition to work is a really important part of human development.

Back in the day when I was learning to be a psychologist, I was exposed to the work of a theorist called Erik Erickson. Apart from having a cool, DJ-type name, Erickson proposed a stage theory of human development that extended beyond childhood and well into the adult years. For Erikson, getting work was a sign that a person was moving from the stage of their identity formation through to a stage of developing intimacy. Crucial in his theory about a child becoming an adult was the concept of a child growing to know themselves and then being able to commune or relate with others. Working and the relationships the young adult has with others at work were, to Erikson, very important to their ability to have healthy adult relationships and avoid feelings of isolation.

The age at which many young people get full time work has certainly increased over the years with most Australians now staying on to complete Year 12 education, but I believe that some of Erickson’s ideas still make a lot of sense. Entering the workplace is a whole new world for a young person. They begin to take on a level of responsibility, deal with strangers, negotiate colleagues and have to advocate for themselves in a new environment.

How a young person deals with challenges in their workplace environments can have repercussions for their overall psychological adjustment.

Entering the workplace is likely a whole new experience for a young person. Just as they did when starting kindergarten and school some years ago, young people starting work are entering into a whole new jungle – a new landscape, new rules and new groups of people. Most of the people will be reasonable, but there will always be a need to manage difficult customers, coping with occasional tricky workmates and, sometimes, even dealing with dodgy bosses.

Over the years, our society has learned to take more time orienting young people to start school or transition to high school, but we still have a tendency to just drop youngsters into the thickest part of the workplace jungle and hope that they survive unscathed. Most of them will survive, indeed, they will flourish, but some may have some bad experiences and need some additional assistance.

I have heard of some dodgy workplace practices in regard to young people over the years – unpaid trials that last a long time, not being allowed to go to the toilet all day, having to run errands for your boss and report back to him (at the pub), no breaks….

Issues can arise with regard to safety, fairness, mental health issues, work-life balance as well as communication and interpersonal hassles.

Young people can be fearful of asking questions or making reasonable requests because they are concerned about a range of things – upsetting others, being seen to cause problems, making a scene, or losing their job. Many are concerned about being a disappointment to their parents more than to their boss. Young people are more prone to being embarrassed or socially fearful. Some can still be quite impulsive as their frontal lobes catch up with the super-fast development of the more social parts of their brain.

How can we assist young people to negotiate the workplace environment in healthy ways?

  • Ensure that young people have a workplace that is physically safe. Clearly, in Australia, this is an obligation that all employers should meet. There are some excellent resources on communicating and supervising young workers safely here.  Also, be mindful that many young workers are still dependent on others to actually get to work and get home again. It’s wise to check in on how safe a young employee might be getting to, and from, work as well.
  • Recognise that some people may have different ways of taking in information. Be sure that information is provided to them clearly, repeatedly if necessary and that is demonstrated as well as told.
  • Make time to listen to a young person’s experiences at work.
  • Encourage interpersonal problem solving if needed – help them to identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, then pick the best possible solutions and follow it through
  • Support young people to pursue the correct avenues if they feel that their situation is illegal. There is some great information on ‘fairness’, pay, and the issue of unpaid work trails at the Fairwork site.
  • Be mindful of our own workplace values and check in to see if they are healthy and serving you, your family and your workplace well – you don’t want to give a young person a bad view of working life before they even get to try it for themselves
  • If you know a young person with a mental health concern, work can offer many advantages if they are ready to try. The decision to tell a workplace about a mental illness should lie with the young person themselves. Be sure to remind them that you are available to assist them if they would like company when they tell their employer. Also keep an eye on the work life balance and encourage the young person to know their early warning signs, their most common triggers and their personal safety plans.

Young people have much to add to the workforce and the workforce has much to offer young people. Young people can bring an energy and spirit to a workplace and they can learn so much from those around them.

Working can offer young people such broad experiences and expose them to all sorts of walks of life that they may not otherwise experience in their community. There’s a sense of accomplishment associated with learning new things and with increasing responsibility.

Entering into to workplace “jungle” can provide young people with a sense of identity, assist with the development of social skills, provide new friendships, bring some routine and some financial reward.

Supported exposure to the work place can be the making of some young people! Bring on the next adventure!


Oh, for younger kids starting at school or kindergarten this year, “The Playground is Like the Jungle” and “Friendship is Like a Seesaw” can be useful ways to start conversations about getting along with people in different places and in different friendships.  It’s good to get in early!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *