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Public health researchers express concerns about COVID-19 impact on mental health and wellbeing

MEDIA RELEASE: 26 October 2020: One of the greatest impacts of COVID-19 has been the loss of jobs, and a major indicator of this is the increase in people receiving unemployment benefits.1 In June 2019, there were just over three quarters of a million people (769,555) receiving unemployment benefits; by June 2020, this figure had more than doubled to over 1.5 million (1,614,412) (not including JobKeeper recipients) – raising concerns about the impact this will have on mental health and wellbeing. This is according to recent research from Public Health Information Development Unit (PHIDU) at Torrens University.

Although the impact has been seen across Australia, the extent of change has generally been greater in the capital cities than in regional areas, according to research released today by the Public Health Information Development Unit (PHIDU) at Torrens University. The substantial increase in unemployment is most evident in areas that have traditionally had low numbers of unemployment benefit recipients.

“The data reveal that people living in more affluent areas have not been immune to job losses and financial pressures imposed by the coronavirus pandemic,” said PHIDU Director, Professor John Glover.

“Unusually, we are seeing this change across the socioeconomic spectrum. Although the largest increase in numbers are in the most disadvantaged areas, the largest percentage increases are in the most well-off areas, as they are increasing off of a very low base.”

State and capital city increases in unemployment (2020 vs 2019)

In the capital cities, the increase from June 2019 to June 2020 was greatest in Greater Sydney (2.60 times) and Greater Melbourne (2.45 times) and lowest in Greater Hobart (1.81 times) and Greater Adelaide (1.91 times). Greater Hobart and Greater Adelaide, with the smallest increases, had the highest rates of income support payments in 2019; while Greater Sydney and Greater Melbourne had the second and third lowest rates (after Canberra). 

Unemployment in disadvantaged areas

Unemployment remains very much an issue for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. For example, between June 2019 and June 2020, the proportion of Sydney’s population receiving an unemployment benefit increased by over two and a half times (2.60 times, from 3.0% to 7.8%). Although the increase in the more affluent areas was greater than in the most disadvantaged areas (4.65 times compared with 2.06 times), the equity gap remains very large, with 3.20 times the proportion of the population in the most disadvantaged areas receiving unemployment benefits when compared with the least disadvantaged areas. By comparison, in June 2019, the gap was 7.24 times.

Public health concerns
People who do not have access to secure and satisfying work are less likely to have an adequate income; and unemployment and underemployment are generally associated with reduced life opportunities and poorer health and wellbeing. There is consistent evidence from research that unemployment is associated with adverse health outcomes and has a direct effect on physical and mental health over and above the effects of socioeconomic status, poverty, risk factors, or prior ill-health.2,3,4

A report from the Centre for Economic Policy Research5 notes that Australia’s Coronavirus Supplement doubled JobSeeker and associated payments, increasing them to around $1,115 per fortnight. From the end of September, the payment fell to $815, pushing this group of people back to the poverty line (which according to modelling is around $816 per fortnight). The Coronavirus Supplement is available until 31 December. From then, JobSeeker payments are set to return to $565.70 per fortnight; well below the poverty line.5

“It is widely acknowledged that the pandemic has impacted the mental health and wellbeing of many people,” Professor Glover said.

“As the various supplements are reduced and potentially removed, the financial stress for many Australians will likely be exacerbated, as people may have delayed major expenses, such as rent, mortgage and utilities bills. This additional financial pressure is set to negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing even further.”

The data, including interactive atlases to view maps for any part of Australia are available here.

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Sources:

1. In June 2019 the payments for eligible unemployed people were the Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance (other). From 20 March 2020, JobSeeker Payment replaced Newstart Allowance. Together, these payment types are referred to as ‘unemployment benefits’. Data available from https://data.gov.au/data/dataset/dss-payment-demographic-data

  • Mathers CD, Schofield DJ. The health consequences of unemployment: the evidence. Med J Aust. 1998;168(4):178-82.
  • Dollard MF, Winefield AH. Mental health: overemployment, underemployment, unemployment and healthy jobs. Aust e-J Adv Mental Hlth. 2002;1(3).
  • World Health Organization (WHO). Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice. Geneva: WHO; 2005.
  • Phillips et al The Conversation 11 September 2020.

Website: Public Health Information Development Unit (PHIDU) and Torrens University

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