A new report from The Wellbeing Lab and AHRI shows that many Australian employees are still struggling to sustain their wellbeing at work in spite of less large-scale disruption to their lives.
Nationwide research has unveiled the state of mental health and wellbeing in the Australian workforce, and demonstrated why workers need HR’s support now more than ever.
After its previous report revealed the startling impact of the difficulties faced by the workforce from 2019-2020, The Wellbeing Lab’s latest State Of Wellbeing In Australian Workplaces report, conducted in partnership with AHRI, seeks to understand the overarching trends that have emerged in wellbeing pre-, mid- and post-pandemic.
Over 1000 employees were surveyed about their take on the ‘new normal’ and asked to rate their general wellbeing at work: were they consistently thriving, living well, just getting by or really struggling?
In 2021, 6.9 per cent of employees said they were really struggling. This figure rose to 9.7 per cent in 2022 – an increase of more than 40 per cent. The number of employees who said they were ‘not feeling bad, just getting by’ also increased from 26.7 per cent in 2021 to 30.7 per cent this year.
The graphic below charts changes in employees’ wellbeing from 2019-2022.
The end of COVID camaraderie
It might seem counterintuitive that the number of surveyed employees who say they are ‘really struggling’ has increased since 2021, given COVID-19 has arguably been less disruptive to our day-to-day lives this year. If one of our biggest sources of struggle has subsided, why haven’t our personal wellbeing struggles followed suit?
According to the report’s primary author, Dr Michelle McQuaid, a possible answer is the loss of shared experience.
“When we’re really struggling, it can feel very lonely and very shameful. We think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ or ‘Why aren’t I doing as well as my colleagues?’. In the last few years, we were all really struggling, but we were all struggling with similar things.
“[COVID-19] made the struggle feel less isolating and shameful, which was why we saw the ‘really struggling’ number go down in the last two years, and the ‘living well, despite struggle’ number go up. To some degree, we were all in it together.”
Interestingly, the Wellbeing Lab’s research also revealed that employees who said they were thriving pre-pandemic were also the people whose wellbeing was hit hardest by the upheaval of the last two years.
“Often we think in workplaces that the goal is to get everyone to be thriving, and we have to get rid of all the struggle and difficulty. And the challenge of that is that struggle is part of how we learn and grow.” – Michelle McQuaid
“Some of those workers who were consistently thriving [before COVID-19] didn’t have that level of resilience when their circumstances changed a lot. They weren’t able to continue to thrive in the midst of struggle.
“The people who are living well despite struggle are our most resilient workers. And they did the best during these COVID years. Often we think that the goal in workplaces is to get everyone to be thriving, and that we have to get rid of all the struggle and difficulty. The challenge of that, of course, is that struggle is part of how we learn and grow.”
Investing in wellbeing
The Wellbeing Lab’s research from this year shows that our biggest sources of stress vary hugely from person to person.
It’s unsurprising that mental health was the second most commonly cited source of struggle, but it’s also important to note that four out of five workers were struggling more with other factors, from navigating change to managing money.
Interestingly, ‘dealing with people’ was cited as the most common cause of struggle.
A full breakdown of surveyed employees’ main sources of struggle are detailed in the graph below.
These results suggest that organisations might need to rethink where they are putting the majority of their wellbeing budget.
“The balance still is too weighted on EAP and mental health, and not enough on wellbeing,” says McQuaid. “EAP services can be really effective, but workers are often reluctant to use them, either because of stigma or lack of trust that it will be reported back to their workplaces.
“One in five workers have severe mental health issues. But what about the four in five? If you’ve put the majority of your wellbeing investment budget in EAP services, you’ve actually got four in five employees who will never touch that resource and probably wouldn’t get benefit from it.
“But they don’t necessarily have other a [support] available to them on an ongoing basis.”
So how can employers know how they can get more bang for their buck when it comes to employee wellbeing support?
The answer is simple, says McQuaid: just ask.
“A lot of organisations now are using approaches such as appreciative inquiry or open-system conversations – just bringing their people online or into a room together to say, ‘Tell us what’s working well about the wellbeing support we’re providing’, or ‘We’ve got this much budget, where would you spend it?’.
“This way, they feel like it’s a co-designed workplace wellbeing strategy, rather than something that’s been done to them. And this is a really effective way to surface wellbeing champions across your workplace.”
While the difficulties posed by COVID-19 may have given employees a sense of togetherness that improved wellbeing, McQuaid stresses that we do not need another pandemic to happen in order to get that feeling back.
Instead, she says we can use appropriate communication to achieve an environment where there is no shame in struggle.
“The low-hanging fruit is just normalising struggle. We all struggle some of the time. There’s no shame in it.
“Even when things are going pretty well, chances are there are still things around the edges that could be improved. Normalising that as part of the conversation goes a long way to getting rid of that sense of shame and isolation.”
McQuaid shared an example of a way to normalise these feelings that she used in her previous role as an Australian Brand Manager at PwC.
“I used to talk in our team meeting each week about the ‘screw up of the week’. At first, [the team] thought this was a management trick to get them to confess to all the things they were doing wrong, so for the first month it was all just my screw ups.
“But what they saw was that a month later, I was still there to tell the stories. I hadn’t been fired yet. And we were talking about what we were learning from my screw ups, and that made them more interested in sharing theirs.