Surveys reveal the impact of employment loss on the mental health of Australians during COVID-19

In December 2020, the PHAA co-convened a special edition virtual conference with the theme: Preventing, detecting, controlling and managing COVID-19 – reflections on 2020 and future challenges.

This article is one of a series on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian community, as presented by experts to this special conference.

The following is based on a presentation by Dr Daniel Griffiths from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine.


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics around one million full-time, part-time and casual workers lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic in 2020 which sent Australia into a recession for the first time in nearly 30 years.

During 2020, Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine conducted four separate surveys to assess how those who lost their employment were affected.

The survey

A total of 2,600 people were recruited to participate in the survey. All were in paid work, were aged over 18 and the surveys were conducted online or by telephone.

The aims of the survey were to determine:

  • Whether the degree of work loss during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with increased mental health problems
  • If social interactions and financial resources moderate the relationship between work loss and health
  • How people are managing their mental health
  • The impact of the Victorian lockdown on mental health

The survey found the employment of around three-quarters of the survey’s participants was directly impacted in some way by the pandemic.

  • A total of 660 participants were still engaged in some work but with reduced hours
  • A total of 613 participants were still employed but at the time of the survey were not working
  • A total of 541 participants (almost 20 per cent) had lost their jobs since the pandemic began.

Survey findings

The survey found that those who were most at risk were those who were newly employed in a job.

During 2020 all groups experienced increased levels of distress but those who had lost their jobs experienced the greatest levels of anxiety.

People with fewer social interactions had greater levels of distress. People with greater social interactions and greater access to money were less distressed.

Of those who were experiencing some level of distress due to their changing employment circumstances more than 70 per cent spoke to someone about their mental health. 18.5 per cent spoke to a health professional and 51.8 per cent spoke to a non-health professional (a family member, friend or colleague).

Concerningly, there was a large gap between those people needing help and those seeking help with more than 60 per cent of people in distress reporting not speaking to a health professional.

The survey participants were asked what actions they undertook to help manage their mental health during the pandemic.

  • 6 per cent watched something uplifting
  • 6 per cent reduced their exposure to news
  • 6 per cent consumed more alcohol
  • 4 per cent called a support line

One survey tracked the impacts of the Victorian winter lockdown, a time which resulted in dramatic increases in social isolation.

The Victorians reported:

  • significant increases in psychological distress
  • more behavioural changes to manage mental health problems
  • reduced in-person social interactions but increased virtual/telephone interactions

Take away messages

After analysing the findings of the surveys, the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine recommended the following:

  • Health-promoting programs should be targeted to those at risk of work loss, and to those whose working arrangements mean they are ineligible for alternative forms of financial assistance.
  • Policies must enable social interaction, such as the establishment of social or household ‘bubbles’; during phases of the lockdown
  • Interventions that promote positive behaviours, and increasing access to mental health care and workplace supports, are recommended for those experiencing work loss.
  • Lockdown measures must be coupled with additional community-wide supports and services that address the social determinants of health (e.g., improving access to mental health supports, providing financial assistance to communities, and supporting social interactions.)


Image credit: AAP, James Gourley

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