The COVID-19 pandemic has created complex public health and economic challenges for nations all over the world. While Australians grapple with the visible stress of recovering from infections, losing a loved one, and income insecurity, an invisible pandemic has taken hold of the nation as well: a deteriorating mental health. Let us examine these developments, understand the state of mental wellness in Australian workplaces, and discuss ways in which businesses can help.
What do the latest numbers on unemployment and suicide rates show?
Research by Suicide Prevent Australia reveals that nearly a quarter of Australians know someone in their close network who passed away because of suicide or who had made an attempt in the past year.
The CEO of the organisation says that the number of deaths from suicide has been thrice the number of deaths from COVID-19 infections, and that the peaks tend to correlate with major socio-economic events. For instance, suicide cases and attempts peaked during the height of unemployment during the pandemic. The report also shows even young people between the ages of 12 and 25 are at risk.
A cause of concern
Nearly 2.3 million Australians had either been jobless or seen their wages/working hours reduced in 2020. It has already been established that employment aspects and work stability considerably affect the mental wellbeing of individuals.
Mental health services and frameworks have traditionally operated on shoestring budgets and over-stretched beyond their capacity, and the pandemic has highlighted these fault lines. Despite the ambitious JobKeeper program, and other schemes to protect jobs, people in Australia have been rendered food insecure and homeless due the pandemic.
The lockdown has increased the number of people getting in touch with support organisations in Australia. Experts believe the pandemic has exacerbated the already delicate mental health of millions of Australians. Research by Allianz Australia also shows that people are struggling to talk about their mental health challenges.
There has been an uptick in the number of Australians claiming benefits for psychological injuries and damage related to their workplace. The study shows that nearly 43 per cent of organisations could not execute policies and strategies to support the mental health of their employees.
The impact of lockdowns in Australia
The pandemic has caused unprecedented stress on people's lives, finances, and overall well-being due to various reasons. Besides battling a health emergency, and possibly the loss of a loved one, confinement at home for extended periods has increased susceptibility to anxiety and depression, according to the OECD.
With the rapid spread of the Delta variant resulting in stricter lockdown measures, there is uncertainty over how long the current situation might prevail. Some major cities in Australia have been under lockdown for over 200 days. Although the government is trying to speed up the vaccination rollout and modify the ‘Covid Zero’ strategy, it will take time before these changes can benefit people.
Mental health at work before the pandemic
The conversation about mental well-being in the workplace, even before the pandemic, was steadily gaining momentum. Businesses, employee groups, unions, and the government were cognisant of the negative impact of poor mental health on individuals and profits.
According to one estimate, nearly 7,200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions every year, which makes up around 6 per cent of all worker compensation claims. The occupations identified to be the most at-risk are defence forces, firefighters, police, drivers, health and welfare workers, prison and security officers, and social work professionals.
The Work Health and Safety Act of 2011 requires businesses to ensure the health and safety of workers. It also includes specific provisions for physical and psychological health.
Healthdirect Australia, the country’s public health information service, also has dedicated resources to address workplace mental health. However, a majority of the focus has been on rightful compensation, and the discourse related to prevention has progressed rather slowly over the past decade.
The role of businesses in supporting employee mental health
Businesses can play a pivotal role in ensuring the well-being of their workforce, sometimes even after their employees part ways with the company. Here’s how:
Increasing awareness: By equipping employees with the necessary knowledge, awareness, tools, and resources to identify mental health challenges and manage them, businesses can enable people to take better care of themselves. Similarly, by holding regular sessions and training to build mindfulness, organisations can make employees more resilient.
Supporting employees through the transition: Employees who have been laid off can offer support to employees while they look for new opportunities. This may include offering some benefits (such as medical insurance) for a limited time, recommending their profile to business partners or networks, or even offering resources like the company device or high-speed internet for applying to jobs.
Offering career development programs: Dedicated career development programs can help employees gain stability and work towards long-term goals. Similarly, providing them with financial planning services and training can help them achieve financial security. The focus of employee programs should be to add value to their life, help build skills and improve themselves.
Training leaders and managers: Finally, training managers and leaders to identify signs of mental distress, coaching them on how to break the news of retrenchments, and creating a system of checks and balances can go a long way in cultivating a culture that prioritises mental wellness. When leaders value wellbeing, it sets a precedent that employees follow.
There are several easily available tools and guides in the public domain that can help employers get started with designing programs that address mental health in the workplace.
What can Australians expect in the future?
There have been calls to increase support for the unemployed and financially vulnerable. Furthermore, experts have said that better welfare schemes in housing, finance, and education can all prevent suicide. Nieves Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia, says that two in every three Australians support national legislation aimed to prevent suicides.
As long as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads uncontrollably, it is bound to impact our individual and collective wellbeing. However, by providing access to the right tools and support, employers and the government can help Australians tide over the crisis much more effectively.