Workplace mental health: the ups and the downs

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Australia’s workplaces have made modest gains in the mental health and wellbeing for employees over the past 12 months, despite the impact of COVID-19, according to the largest annual survey of its kind. But, following the drastically altered work patterns from March, there has been a 9 per cent increase in the number of people experiencing a mental health condition.

According to SuperFriend’s latest survey, of 10,338 employees, 27.8 per cent experienced a mental health condition for the first time – the highest number since the survey began six years ago. However, there were some silver linings in the report, on top of the overall improved scorecard of 65.1 out of a possible 100 (up from 62.7 per cent in both 2019 and 2018).

The target overall score considered a “thriving” organisation for the mental health and wellbeing of employees is 80. Only 5 per cent of responses reflected a score of 80 or more. Casual workers were the furthest from thriving. They had already reported a persistent decline in respect and inclusiveness for the past three surveys.

Margo Lydon, the chief executive of SuperFriend, the super industry’s mental health research and lobby group which commissions the survey, said: “This is hugely concerning… Casual workers have very little job security, and fewer opportunities to access workplace mental health programs and resources compared with their securely employed peers. Accommodation, food services and arts and recreation sector workers have been particularly hard hit because of this.”

Lucy Brogden, the chair of the National Health Commission, was hopeful that some of the silver linings from COVID could be retained when the pandemic’s effect eventually waned. These included: better connectedness with colleagues and others in the adversity; some increases in productivity; and, better access to leaders.

Time savings from reduced travel was the biggest reason for those reporting increased productivity, plus 21.8 per cent reported they worked longer hours. More people, however, reported working fewer hours (31.8 per cent). Nearly half (48 per cent) reported a better work/life balance and, ironically, 44.5 per cent reported health benefits in working from home. Other benefits were relaxed work conditions, greater sense of purpose and greater autonomy. A significant proportion (17.4 per cent) also reported upskilling during the pandemic.

Brogden said: “This report makes a compelling data case for more investment in improving mental health support… It’s about collectiveness and taking an interest in people.”

She was disappointed, for instance, that while 60 per cent reported having talked about mental health issues with others, only 55 per cent of organisations were taking any action to improve the situation. “There are disappointingly low levels of mental health literacy in all organisations – large and small,” she said.

Margo Lydon, said that no matter how you cut the data, mental health and wellbeing issues cost employers, insurers and the country as a whole a lot of money. She said estimates put the annual cost at between $10 billion and $18 billion a year, from ABS/Treasury estimates and those of a Productivity Commission Mental Health draft report in 2019.

The mental health lobby group was happy to see the Budget contain an increase in the allowed Medicare-covered visits to a psychologist, which had previously been cut back. It also observed that Greg Hunt, the Federal Minister for Health, said on Budget night that the Government had a ‘Suicide Prevention Report’ and the Productivity Commission report in front of it and would be making some more announcements in the coming weeks.

The survey showed that the best industry sector for mental health and wellbeing was Information, media and telecommunications, with a score: 71.6 out of 100, followed by financial and insurance services (score: 67.60.) The worst was transport, postal and warehousing has the highest proportion of workers experiencing stress (40.3 per cent), followed by public administration and safety (37.9 per cent) and retail trade (37.7 per cent).

The report, ‘Indicators of a Thriving Workplace’, was published last Friday (October 9), the day before World Mental Health Day.

– G.B.

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