As the nation marks mental health month, experts have stressed the critical role of work as a protective factor in the overall wellbeing of disadvantaged Australians.
Australia’s disability employment gap, which stands at over 30%, has been largely unchanged since 2003, putting it behind OECD economies, including Italy, Finland, France and Sweden.
According to figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission, the labour force participation rate for people with disability aged 15–64 years is 53.4%, compared to 84.1% of people the same age without disability, highlighting the need to improve and expand employment pathways.
Australia’s leading mental health expert and Co-Director of Health and Policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Ian Hickie today highlighted the critical role of work as a protective factor in the mental health and wellbeing of disadvantaged Australians.
‘Work is a protective factor for good mental health’
Speaking at the National Employment Services Association (NESA) 2023 National Conference in Brisbane today, Professor Hickie noted the human cost of joblessness, particularly for those Australians who are already facing multiple barriers to employment.
“We know that work is a protective factor for good mental health and being out of work puts people at risk of depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem,” Professor Hickie said.
“It’s already difficult for the average job seeker and even harder for Australians who are behind the eight ball because they are facing entrenched disadvantage.”
Hickie said this can include limited education, being a young person with little work experience, living with a disability or health issue, having a criminal history, or coming from a background of intergenerational unemployment.
“It’s critical that we develop pathways to help people gain security in employment and to encourage more inclusive and accommodating job design and workplace practices.”
NESA Chief Executive, Kathryn Mandla, said that it is vital to give disadvantaged job seekers the opportunity to experience the dignity of paid work and the resultant benefits of economic stability, social inclusion and a stronger self-identity.
“But it can’t just be any job – it has to be the right job,” Mandla said. “That requires more investment in the skills and resources available to employment service providers and prospective employers, so they are better able to ensure a job seeker keeps that job once they’ve landed it.”
Mandla pointed out that with worker shortages in many sectors and slowing productivity across the economy, there is a need to access the untapped potential of more than 500,000 Australians that NESA’s members are currently supporting through tailored labour assistance programs.
“Emphasising short-term exits from income support without helping job seekers secure better-quality and ongoing employment, increases the risk that they fall into unemployment again.”
Professor Hickie said it was also important to debunk the myth that people with a mental health issue such as depression need time off work to get well.
“The truth is we don’t get well to go to work – we go to work to get well,” Professor Hickie said.
Mandla said it’s more than just helping people to get a job.
“It’s about lifetime wellbeing and a fair go for all Australians who can and want to work.”
Sizable long-term economic benefits
Research from the Australian Government’s disability employment hub JobAccess shows the estimated economic benefits of employing people with disability would add over $50bn to GDP by 2050 if Australia moved up into the top eight OECD countries for the employment of people with disability.
The study, released in March this year, found that disability-inclusive businesses grow profits more than four times faster than their peers; employees with disability stay on the job four months longer on average than those without disability; and people with disability are safer in the workplace and have 34% fewer accidents than other employees.
“Despite a strong business case, there is an employment bias against people with disability. Managers and employers are often concerned that productivity benefits might not be enough to justify costs to the business,” JobAccess General Manager Daniel Valiente-Riedl said.
“But Australian and global research tells a completely different story. Discrimination remains very real. Some employers aren’t hiring people with disability because of attitudes and stereotypes that are simply incorrect.”