The survey of over 10,000 people showed clear benefits for those at organisations taking action related to mental health, including improved financial and mental health outcomes. Despite this, more than half of Australia's workers (55.1%) report their workplace is taking no action.

The research, now in its sixth year, measures and tracks the current state of mental health and wellbeing in Australian workplaces against a desired state. The 2020 national workplace mental health and wellbeing index score increased to 65.1 out of 100, after remaining steady for the previous two years at 62.7.

SuperFriend CEO, Margo Lydon said: “Australia’s workplaces have moved closer to thriving over the last year. While this improvement may seem counter-intuitive during such turbulent times, it infers two things: work is generally good for our social connections and mental health, and long-term sustained efforts to improve workplace mental health are starting to gain traction.”

Unexpected COVID benefits: Connectedness, productivity, and access to leaders

The research found that Australian workers are feeling more connected than ever before, particularly in organisations where everyone worked remotely for at least a month since March 2020, compared to those who worked on-site (71.3 vs 67.6 out of 100).

There has also been a surprising increase in the number of people who have become more productive throughout this period (up 4pp from February to 29.4% in June). The most popular productivity boosters were identified as “Reduced commute to work” (38.4%), “More comfortable clothing” (31.3%) and “Flexible work hours” (29.4%).

“Who'd have thought a pandemic which introduced ‘social distancing’ as a behaviour norm would make us feel more connected at work?” Margo said.

“A key positive coming from this crisis is the surge in the sense of shared purpose. Workplaces are increasingly feeling like communities where people support each other beyond getting the job done.

“Time usually spent getting ready for work, commuting and attending unnecessary meetings is instead spent with loved ones, exercising, pursuing personal interests or getting more sleep – all known factors to improve wellbeing and increase productivity,” she added.

Three in five employees (58.9%) working in action-oriented businesses confirmed that leadership has improved since March with leaders being more accessible when needed and acting as champions for their teams (versus 1.7% in less committed workplaces).

“For leaders, this is a fantastic opportunity to get to know their staff better, practice self-reflection, build resilience and trust to effectively reduce worker frustration and stress and create happier, healthier workplaces,” Margo added.

Concerning hot spots: Casual and insecure work and stigma

The survey found that casual workers are the furthest from thriving, and that the gap has widened due to COVID-19. As an example, the culture index score was 66.0 for full-time workers, compared with only 62.0 for casuals. Casual workers also reported persistent declines in respect and inclusiveness over three consecutive years.

“This is hugely concerning” said to Ms Lydon. “Over the last few years of conducting this research, we have noticed a persistent decline in outcomes for casual workers and industries with higher casualised workforces. Casual workers have very little job security, and fewer opportunities to access workplace mental health programs and resources compared with their securely employed peers. Accommodation, food services and arts and recreation workers have been particularly hard hit because of this."

Further, while organisational supportiveness of employee mental health and wellbeing has improved since last year (up 8.8pp to 51.9%), stigma around other issues has emerged, such as physical health and racism.

6.6% of workers reported that they have experienced stigma around physical health issues (cold and flu symptoms) this year, and 5.1% experienced racism in the workplace. These workers also have overall thriving workplace scores that are well below the national average of 65.1 out of 100 (54.7 and 56.6, respectively).

Taking action is not a choice, but a necessity

According to the report, workplace commitment to improving workers’ mental health and wellbeing through tangible action has been particularly important this year, and more people reported their workplace took action compared with 2019.

Also, while ‘lack of time and commitment’ has tumbled as the most commonly perceived barrier preventing employers from investing in workplace mental health and wellbeing, ‘businesses facing more important issues / struggling to survive’ has emerged as the new biggest hurdle, especially for small businesses.

One in three workplaces (29.8%) have implemented new initiatives to support workers' mental health and wellbeing since March, such as paid mental health days off, sick pay for casual workers, meeting-free blocks and substantially longer break times.

However, more than half (55.1%) of workplaces are still not taking any tangible action, despite a stronger national focus and additional funding. These workplaces are missing out on huge benefits to their workforce and their business more broadly.

“In light of this, taking action by investing in workplace mental health and wellbeing is not an optional extra, it’s a must have. With Australia’s increasing awareness of workplace mental health and its links to productivity, combined with our radically transformed ways of working, I hope this marks a positive tide of change." concluded Margo .