Modern work: how changes to the way we work are impacting Australians’ mental health

Employee mental health Mental health promotion Quality of work life Mental health Australia

The research presented in this white paper focuses on workplace mental health. Work in Australia has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. Technological innovation has led to wide scale digitisation of work, automation and the gig economy. At the same time, Australia’s workforce has changed, with greater female participation, an older retirement age and many more people on short term or casual contracts. Even before COVID-19, the Productivity Commission Mental Health Inquiry of 2020 found workplace mental ill-health cost Australia up to $39 billion in lost participation and productivity.

The key question this white paper seeks to answer is what, if any, impact have these seismic changes had on the mental health of Australian workers? We investigate this question using new data from three large scale surveys, perspectives from the Business Council of Australia and from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, as well as voices of Australian workers with lived experience of mental illness. Emerging data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is also considered to build the dynamic picture of Australia’s workforce mental health.

The first section of this white paper provides a historical perspective to help define the nature of modern work. It traces the key shifts in work roles, workplaces and Australia’s working population since the year 2000.

The second section uses data collected from more than 9000 Australian workers as part of the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) surveys to better understand shifts in workers’ lives and experiences, with a focus on work-related mental health risk factors.

The third section uses mental health and suicide data from a range of sources over the last two decades to examine what, if any, shifts have occurred in the mental health and wellbeing of Australian workers. The rates of suicide among working aged Australians have remained relatively stable. However, mental health symptoms gradually increased over the last decade, most apparent amongst younger workers, aged under 25, and in the last year exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final section of this white paper is a call to action for both businesses and governments in Australia to attend to our workplace mental health crisis. These actions must be supported by best available evidence.

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