COVID-19 halves positive mental health states in 2020

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Monday, 1 February, 2021 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

There has been a significant impact on psychological health and wellbeing in 2020 as a result of organisational changes and other restrictions put in place in response to COVID-19, according to a recent analysis.

Depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress and mental wellbeing, life satisfaction and resilience were all affected last year, with one of the biggest impacts in the area of psychological health and wellbeing.

Only 21 per cent of people displayed good mental health through COVID-19, compared to 42 per cent pre-COVID, according to an analysis conducted by the South Australian Health and Research Institute (SAHMRI) Wellbeing and Resilience Centre.

“Our research comparing data on mental health in 2019 to 2020 (taken across the year) shows that outcomes were negatively impacted when the pandemic hit,” said Monique Newberry, co-lead at the SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre.
“We also know that up to 30 per cent of the population (including across the staff base of our workplaces) has low wellbeing which we refer to as the invisible vulnerable group among us. “This group is eight times more likely to develop a mental illness; that’s 7 million Australians.”

Newberry said this means there is a significant number of people in workplaces who may not be showing clinical symptoms, and therefore are not actively seeking support and have no services actively targeted/offered to them.

The research drew on different studies including Using Internet-Based Psychological Measurement to Capture the Deteriorating Community Mental Health Profile During COVID-19: Observational Study (with around 1000 participants) as well as data around mental health outcomes from SAHMRI’s own research base.

Newberry said COVID-19 has brought psychological health to the forefront.

“We have seen many organisations prioritise this as a must-have and no longer as a nice to have, in order to navigate the uncertainly that comes with a global pandemic,” she said.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the focus for many organisations was on reacting to the changes and working to get things in place for staff such as transition arrangements to work from home.

“As the year evolved and we realised that change was now the new normal, we saw many organisations show greater concern toward the mental health of their staff.”

While Newberry said it is promising to see how the focus on mental health in workplaces has evolved, one issue many organisations grapple with is knowing where to go for support and what type of support to seek.

“There are many offerings out there, some with more validity and evidence-base than others,” she said.

“Knowing where to invest time and funds for most value and impact for staff and the business is challenging.

“For example, our research shows that whilst a lot of investment has gone into helplines, that isn’t always the best option for building mental health but may mainly be useful as a more reactive measure.”

Newberry said more traditional offerings which predominantly focus on illness are no longer delivering the impact that is needed.

Furthermore, while getting executive approval to invest and prioritise wellbeing and mental health in a financially constrained environment can sometimes still be cited as a major challenge, Newberry said businesses cannot afford not to invest in building the wellbeing of their staff.

“OHS and business leaders need to craft strategies that build mental health and wellbeing, not only respond to illness,” said Newberry.

When seeking programs to support the mental health of staff, Newberry said it is important to consider those that look at building states of mental health and reducing distress (and not simply those that only respond to illness) as well as those which are backed by reputable research.

Considering factors in the workplace environment is important but not enough, Newberry added.

“We know people bring their whole selves to work so for most impact consider capacity building for staff to develop skills that they can use both within and outside of the workplace,” she said.

 Measuring the mental health of staff (not only symptoms of illness) is also crucial in order to know the starting point for the business, how to target and tailor strategies for different teams and importantly how to measure the impact of any interventions/ strategies which are rolled out by continuing to collect mental health outcome data.

“Do your due diligence,” said Newberry.

“Investing in your wellbeing pays off, but you will need to invest appropriately. Building the wellbeing of your workforce is a long-term endeavour: quick fixes simply won’t be a good investment.”