Australian workers – especially young people – are reporting increased symptoms of mental health conditions, according to a new report from the Black Dog Institute that calls on employers to respond urgently by adopting key recommendations for change.

The report authors examined data on Australian work and mental health over the past 20 years and discovered “worrying trends” emerging.

“Australian workers report their jobs are now more complex and difficult than the previous decade, that they worry more, at all ages, about the long-term future of jobs, and that they have experienced a sustained reduction in their freedom to decide how to do their work,” wrote Professor Sam Harvey, the Institute’s Acting Director and Chief Psychiatrist.

The report found that the amount of mental health symptoms reported by Australian workers had gradually increased in the past decade, a trend most evident among younger workers aged under 25. 

“Young people have also reported a steep increase in mental health symptoms over the last year, suggesting changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the trend towards worsening mental health that was already emerging for younger workers,” it says.

Although the rate of workers’ compensation claims related to mental health had remained “relatively stable” in recent years, the Institute’s analysis found it was taking people longer to recover from these injuries and there was a “steady” increase in claims related to workplace bullying and harassment.

Titled Modern work: how changes to the way we work are impacting Australians’ mental health, the report reflects on the dramatic shifts in Australian work over the past two decades, such as wide-scale digitisation, automation and the rise of the gig economy. It also considers workforce changes like greater female participation, an increased retirement age and the much greater use of short-term or casual contracts.

The report authors found “three key pieces of evidence” they say support a link between these changes to work and the shifts in workers’ mental health symptoms. These are:

  • work-based factors that have changed over time – job strain, job control and casualisation
  • the timings and patterns of the changes in work and reported health appear to coincide
  • the apparent shifts in mental health highlighted in the report were most evident in people who were employed, rather than the whole population.

On a positive note, the authors discovered that more Australian employers were acting to create more mentally healthy workplaces. Nevertheless, given the emergence of the trends above, the Black Dog Institute is urging Australian businesses and governments to respond by supporting specific initiatives to further improve workplace mental health.

Five recommendations for employers to consider

  1. Provide managers with evidence-based mental health training to improve their recognition of and response to employee mental ill health in the workplace.
  2. Build mentally healthy workplaces through organisational-level strategies that facilitate worker autonomy, improved job control and flexible work.
  3. Take immediate preventative action on workplace bullying, sexual harassment and assault.
  4. Implement evidence-based protective mental health and well-being interventions for all employees.
  5. Plan for a steady post-pandemic workplace transition, including hybrid and flexible transitions and support for young workers.

Reference: Black Dog Institute 

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