More than 600,000 Australians have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and two-thirds of Aussies say they feel anxious about their health and safety. Both factors are contributing to a massive toll on Australian’s mental health, according to a new study from The Australian National University (ANU).
Almost four-in-10 people say they feel it is either very likely or likely that they will be infected with the coronavirus in the next six months.
The study assesses people’s attitudes and experiences of COVID-19 both before and during the pandemic.
The researchers, Professor Nicholas Biddle and Professor Matthew Gray, say the findings paint a picture of “hardship and distress, but also resilience”.
Co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said Australians were not just concerned about potentially contracting coronavirus but were also feeling extremely anxious about job security.
“Australians’ perceived levels of job insecurity are very high. One-in-four employed Australians think it is probable they will lose their jobs in the next 12 months, which is almost twice as high as it has ever been over that period since 2001,” he said.
“And over one-in-four employed Australians assess the likelihood that they will lose their job over the next 12 months as being more than 50%.”
The study also found the employment rate fell from 62.0% in February to 58.9% in April 2020 – a drop in employment of about 670,000 people.
“This is unprecedented in modern Australian economic history,” Professor Gray said.
“Declines in employment are largest for those aged 18-24 years with a relatively large fall in employment also among those aged 65 years or older.
“If previous periods of high unemployment are any guide, the effect on the young is likely to be felt throughout their working life, and those who leave the labour force when close to retirement age may never return.”
According to the study, people’s working hours declined from 35.1 to 31.1 hours per week between February and April 2020. The largest declines in hours worked were experienced by women and those born in non-English speaking countries.
“We also found that the total loss to annual household income is $102 billion,” Professor Gray said.
“There were drops in average household after-tax weekly income between February and April of 9.1%. However, the drops in per person income were larger still, as household size increased and incomes needed to be spread over a greater number of people. Per person income dropped by 10.4%, or $740 per person per week in February to $663 per week in April.
“We also saw larger declines in income for 18- to 24-year-olds, while there were smaller declines for those who lived in the most advantaged neighbourhoods.
“One of the most important findings from our research is that incomes have increased by 33.5%, from $160 to $213, for Australians at the very bottom of the income distribution. This is probably due to the economic hardship measures the Government has put in place in the face of the pandemic.”
The significant toll COVID-19 has had on Australians’ mental health and wellbeing is also outlined, with the researchers estimating that the average change in life satisfaction observed in the data is equivalent to losing $581 per week.
The researchers also noted an increase in psychological distress from 8.4% to 10.6% in those with a probable serious mental illness.
A greater sense of social trust
Professor Biddle said the findings weren’t all negative, with Australians enjoying a greater sense of social trust because of the panic, a large majority observing social distancing and other directives to help stop transmission, and the Federal Government enjoying big gains in popularity.
“Our study shows social trust has increased, with the extent to which Australians think most people can be trusted, that people are fair and that people are helpful all increasing between February and April 2020,” he said.
“There were big increases in Australians’ confidence in the Federal Government, in state and territory governments and the public service.
“Between January and April 2020, the proportion of Australians who are confident or very confident in the federal government increased from 27.3% to 56.6%, in the public service from 48.8% to 64.8% and state/territory governments increased from 40.4% to 66.7%.”
The study surveyed a representative sample of more than 3,100 Australians in April and was able to compare answers from the same group provided in January and February.