‘Everyone is struggling’: unique research looks at workplace wellbeing during COVID-19


A new report from The Wellbeing Lab and AHRI reveals the impact of recent tragedies, and shows workers need HR’s support now more than ever.

Over eighty per cent of workers say their struggles increased in the months covering the bushfires and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is just one of the findings from The State of Wellbeing in Australia, new research from The Wellbeing Lab and the Australian Human Resources Institute. Only about ten per cent of workers reported they were “constantly thriving”, a nine per cent drop since the 2018 report. 

Published earlier this week, the report’s authors are the first to admit they weren’t surprised to discover more people are finding things difficult. As they were first collating data, in December 2019, Australia suffered the worst bushfires in its history. And just as the recovery from those fires began, the world was plunged into the chaos of a serious pandemic. 

So in mid-March the researchers went back to respondents to see how these events would change workers’ answers. Because of this, the report offers a unique look at how workplace wellbeing has been affected by the onset of COVID-19.

A unique report in unique times

The researchers reached out to the participants and asked them the same questions about their well being in light of the bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential economic recession. They also asked a series of additional questions around their anxiety towards COVID-19 and the economy. 

The report’s primary author, Dr Michelle McQuaid, says it was important to capture how workers are feeling.

“What those extra questions allowed us to do was get an overall reading of how people are feeling, but also split that data so we can see how it’s impacting wellbeing.” 

Over ninety per cent of respondents said they were worried about the economy and 82 per cent said they were anxious about coronavirus. 

McQuaid says those numbers will potentially change as the situation continues to unfold. 


You can read the full report from AHRI and the Wellbeing Lab here.


Struggle isn’t a weakness

Surprisingly, participants’ job satisfaction didn’t change too much. It actually increased for people who had reported “not feeling too bad, just getting by”. 

The results show feelings of struggle or stress don’t always undermine work performance. 

“Wellbeing is often thought of as something you have or you don’t, but really it’s an ebb and flow,” she says. “If you say you’re feeling ‘well’ all the time, I’d honestly be worried about you.”

One counterintuitive finding from the report centered about performance levels and anxiety.

It reads: “Interestingly, workers who reported high levels of worry and anxiety about the impact of coronavirus or the economy reported the same performance levels as workers with low levels of worry and anxiety. In contrast, workers who reported medium levels of worry and anxiety about these challenges were significantly more likely to report lower levels of performance.” 

Who do you turn to?

In December 2019, when asked who workers turned to when struggling, only three per cent said they’d go to HR. In fact, workers would rather not speak to anyone about their problems than speak to the HR team. 

“Overwhelmingly people were more likely to speak to someone outside of work, the person they were least likely to ask was their boss and, even less likely than that, their HR representative,” says McQuaid.

“Interestingly though, people who did go to HR were more likely to see an increase in their wellbeing.”

In the March 2020 data collection, there was an increase in the number of people seeking assistance from HR. It still lagged behind speaking to someone outside of work, but overall more people were looking to the people department for clear communication about the actions they should be taking at this distressing time. 

“This is a really interesting moment in time for HR leaders about what role you want to have on workers going forward,” says McQuaid. 

“There is an opportunity here for HR to step up and fully support people’s wellbeing which might change that relationship on the other side of this crisis.”

Then there’s the others

A worrying finding was the number of people who aren’t concerned about the current situation, says McQuaid. Eighteen per cent of respondents reported low or no anxiety about coronavirus. The researchers worry that if this attitude sticks, they might unintentionally contribute to the spread of the disease and respond poorly to workplace changes made in reaction to the crisis.

“People aren’t always immediately connected to their community, they’re not always wanting to limit their behaviour to help a faceless community. However they might be interested in helping their workplace. And if that still doesn’t work, they’ll definitely want to hold on to their job.”

McQuaid says reaching these workers requires communication that makes things personal. They need to be told the stories that really highlight the seriousness of the situation. 

“As with any behaviour, we have to ask the question, why does this matter to me? Unless there is an answer, unless the change is personally meaningful, there is no drive to change behaviour.” 

How to help

“From a workplace perspective,” says McQuaid, “HR can give those answers, and say, ‘This is why it’s important to you, this is why you need to social distance or stay home. If we want to get back into the office and continue working, right now we need to be doing the right thing.’”

It’s clear this is a time for HR to step up. McQuaid says a priority is helping leaders and employees know that it is OK to talk about struggle. 

“There is a trust issue with HR and bosses, people think ‘oh I need to keep it to myself, I don’t want them to know I’m struggling’ or it could be ‘I don’t know who in HR to talk to or how to reach HR’.”

Whatever the reason, says McQuaid, HR needs to open those doors and encourage communication now more than ever. 

“Continue to tell the stories to make it real, highlight the impact of this,” she says. 

Of course, HR professionals themselves might be struggling. McQuaid says it’s also important for  HR to reach out for help when they need it. She encourages speaking to wellness experts and importantly using all the resources at hand.

In this time, perhaps the best people HR can turn to is one another. As we feel our way through this crisis, and more pressure is placed on HR professionals, it’s worthwhile to speak to those in the community so everyone can learn from, and support each other. 

If you are experiencing a personal crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue’s website for support and helpful information.

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‘Everyone is struggling’: unique research looks at workplace wellbeing during COVID-19


A new report from The Wellbeing Lab and AHRI reveals the impact of recent tragedies, and shows workers need HR’s support now more than ever.

Over eighty per cent of workers say their struggles increased in the months covering the bushfires and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is just one of the findings from The State of Wellbeing in Australia, new research from The Wellbeing Lab and the Australian Human Resources Institute. Only about ten per cent of workers reported they were “constantly thriving”, a nine per cent drop since the 2018 report. 

Published earlier this week, the report’s authors are the first to admit they weren’t surprised to discover more people are finding things difficult. As they were first collating data, in December 2019, Australia suffered the worst bushfires in its history. And just as the recovery from those fires began, the world was plunged into the chaos of a serious pandemic. 

So in mid-March the researchers went back to respondents to see how these events would change workers’ answers. Because of this, the report offers a unique look at how workplace wellbeing has been affected by the onset of COVID-19.

A unique report in unique times

The researchers reached out to the participants and asked them the same questions about their well being in light of the bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential economic recession. They also asked a series of additional questions around their anxiety towards COVID-19 and the economy. 

The report’s primary author, Dr Michelle McQuaid, says it was important to capture how workers are feeling.

“What those extra questions allowed us to do was get an overall reading of how people are feeling, but also split that data so we can see how it’s impacting wellbeing.” 

Over ninety per cent of respondents said they were worried about the economy and 82 per cent said they were anxious about coronavirus. 

McQuaid says those numbers will potentially change as the situation continues to unfold. 


You can read the full report from AHRI and the Wellbeing Lab here.


Struggle isn’t a weakness

Surprisingly, participants’ job satisfaction didn’t change too much. It actually increased for people who had reported “not feeling too bad, just getting by”. 

The results show feelings of struggle or stress don’t always undermine work performance. 

“Wellbeing is often thought of as something you have or you don’t, but really it’s an ebb and flow,” she says. “If you say you’re feeling ‘well’ all the time, I’d honestly be worried about you.”

One counterintuitive finding from the report centered about performance levels and anxiety.

It reads: “Interestingly, workers who reported high levels of worry and anxiety about the impact of coronavirus or the economy reported the same performance levels as workers with low levels of worry and anxiety. In contrast, workers who reported medium levels of worry and anxiety about these challenges were significantly more likely to report lower levels of performance.” 

Who do you turn to?

In December 2019, when asked who workers turned to when struggling, only three per cent said they’d go to HR. In fact, workers would rather not speak to anyone about their problems than speak to the HR team. 

“Overwhelmingly people were more likely to speak to someone outside of work, the person they were least likely to ask was their boss and, even less likely than that, their HR representative,” says McQuaid.

“Interestingly though, people who did go to HR were more likely to see an increase in their wellbeing.”

In the March 2020 data collection, there was an increase in the number of people seeking assistance from HR. It still lagged behind speaking to someone outside of work, but overall more people were looking to the people department for clear communication about the actions they should be taking at this distressing time. 

“This is a really interesting moment in time for HR leaders about what role you want to have on workers going forward,” says McQuaid. 

“There is an opportunity here for HR to step up and fully support people’s wellbeing which might change that relationship on the other side of this crisis.”

Then there’s the others

A worrying finding was the number of people who aren’t concerned about the current situation, says McQuaid. Eighteen per cent of respondents reported low or no anxiety about coronavirus. The researchers worry that if this attitude sticks, they might unintentionally contribute to the spread of the disease and respond poorly to workplace changes made in reaction to the crisis.

“People aren’t always immediately connected to their community, they’re not always wanting to limit their behaviour to help a faceless community. However they might be interested in helping their workplace. And if that still doesn’t work, they’ll definitely want to hold on to their job.”

McQuaid says reaching these workers requires communication that makes things personal. They need to be told the stories that really highlight the seriousness of the situation. 

“As with any behaviour, we have to ask the question, why does this matter to me? Unless there is an answer, unless the change is personally meaningful, there is no drive to change behaviour.” 

How to help

“From a workplace perspective,” says McQuaid, “HR can give those answers, and say, ‘This is why it’s important to you, this is why you need to social distance or stay home. If we want to get back into the office and continue working, right now we need to be doing the right thing.’”

It’s clear this is a time for HR to step up. McQuaid says a priority is helping leaders and employees know that it is OK to talk about struggle. 

“There is a trust issue with HR and bosses, people think ‘oh I need to keep it to myself, I don’t want them to know I’m struggling’ or it could be ‘I don’t know who in HR to talk to or how to reach HR’.”

Whatever the reason, says McQuaid, HR needs to open those doors and encourage communication now more than ever. 

“Continue to tell the stories to make it real, highlight the impact of this,” she says. 

Of course, HR professionals themselves might be struggling. McQuaid says it’s also important for  HR to reach out for help when they need it. She encourages speaking to wellness experts and importantly using all the resources at hand.

In this time, perhaps the best people HR can turn to is one another. As we feel our way through this crisis, and more pressure is placed on HR professionals, it’s worthwhile to speak to those in the community so everyone can learn from, and support each other. 

If you are experiencing a personal crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue’s website for support and helpful information.

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