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Pandemic uncertainties and Victoria’s lockdown reverse Australians’ mental health improvement trend

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Corporate / Mental Health / Australia

Pandemic uncertainties and Victoria’s lockdown reverse Australians’ mental health improvement trend

Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™ worsens in August with a 14-point decline from the pre-pandemic benchmark of 75

MELBOURNE, September 9, 2020 – Morneau Shepell, a leading provider of total wellbeing, mental health and digital mental health services, today released its monthly Mental Health Index™ report, making August the fifth consecutive month of negative mental health scores, with feelings of financial risk and isolation continuing to be the top drivers of Australian employees’ mental health.

After a period of slow but steady improvement from April through July, the Mental Health Index™ score declined in August. The score is now low enough to be comparable to the benchmark’s bottom one per cent across all regions in Australia. The biggest decline occurred in Victoria (-5.0), where a spike in COVID-19 cases resulted in a return to stage-four lockdown restrictions. Overall, women continue to have lower mental health scores than men, Australians identifying as South Asian have significantly lower mental health scores than other racial groups and mental health scores for all groups tend to improve with age.

The Mental Health Index™ for August is -14, which measures a decline in mental health from the pre-2020 benchmark of 75, and lower than the previous month by two points. The Mental Health Index™ also tracks sub-scores against the benchmark, measuring optimism (-17.0), depression (-16.2), anxiety (-15.7), work productivity (-14.3), isolation (-13.3), general psychological health (-6.2) and financial risk (0.1). All sub-score areas experienced declines, with the exception of financial risk, which remained nearly the same as in July (a slight 0.1 improvement). The most significant negative changes were in optimism and depression.

“While Australia was one of the first countries to flatten the COVID-19 case curve, the spike in Victoria has changed reopening plans and hit hard the quality of life and mental health of many Australian employees and their families,” said Jamie MacLennan, managing director, Australia and APAC. “A return to remote learning and the closure of childcare centres in some areas have had a negative impact on productivity and morale for parents and students alike.”

Education and childcare uncertainties exacerbating mental health woes
In March 2020, many schools closed down and transitioned teaching models away from in-person to online only, which caught many instructors, students and parents off-guard. Most people anticipated that once COVID-19 diagnoses and casualties peaked and began to decline, students, teachers and administrators would be able to return to school in-person.

In August, in-person education hopes were in question or going unfulfilled as infection and death rates are not falling as fast as imagined, and the Mental Health Index™ reflects these sentiments. Those people with one child possessed a significantly lower mental health score (-17.0) than those without children (-13.0) and the gap between these two groups has been increasing since April. While on average the decline in mental health from July to August was most significant for parents, those without children also showed a decline given the prolonged uncertainties and challenges of the pandemic for everyone.

Pandemic staying power taking a toll on optimism
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge Australia and the rest of the world, many Australian employees express scepticism about life returning to what was considered normal before the outbreak. Nearly half of respondents (45 per cent) feel that it is unlikely that things will return to the pre-pandemic state, with another 26 per cent undecided. Those who feel that it is very unlikely that things will return to the pre-pandemic state have the lowest mental health scores of all (-24.4), which highlights the mental health impact of looming or ongoing change. Those who believe that things will very likely return to the pre-pandemic state have the highest mental health score (-5.3).

“When COVID-19 caused much of Australia and the world to go into lockdown in March, we were all faced with incredible mental health strains related to personal health and safety, as well as work and school disruptions. Early on, many Australians were optimistic that life would return to normal relatively quickly, but that was not the case,” said Paula Allen, senior vice president of research, analytics and innovation. “Australian employees are falling into a pandemic fatigue as they constantly juggle challenges and uncertainties for themselves and their families across work, financial and schooling needs. It’s critical for employers to understand their employees’ frustrations and feelings of being overwhelmed as they face these unanticipated obstacles and look for ways to help them manage their new realities. The numbers we are seeing could signal a ‘second wave’ of mental angst.” 

The full Australian report includes more insight on changes to mental stress, the impact of a positive outlook on one’s emotional state of mind and variations of the Mental Health Index™ score by demographics, industries and regions. The full Australian report can be found at

About the Mental Health Index
The monthly survey by Morneau Shepell was conducted through an online survey in English from July 21 to July 31, 2020, with 1,000 respondents in Australia. All respondents reside in Australia and were employed within the last six months. The data has been statistically weighted to ensure the regional and gender composition of the sample reflect this population. The margins of error for the survey are +/- 3.2 per cent, valid 19 times out of 20. The Mental Health Index™ is published monthly, beginning April 2020, and compares against benchmark data collected in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The Mental Health Index™ is owned by Morneau Shepell – the wellbeing company that acquired LifeWorks in 2018.

About Morneau Shepell
Morneau Shepell is a leading provider of technology-enabled HR services that deliver an integrated approach to employee wellbeing through our cloud-based platform. Our focus is providing world-class solutions to our clients to support the mental, physical, social and financial wellbeing of their people. By improving lives, we improve business. Our approach spans services in employee and family assistance, health and wellness, recognition, pension and benefits administration, retirement consulting, actuarial and investment services. Morneau Shepell employs approximately 6,000 employees who work with some 24,000 client organizations that use our services in 162 countries. For more information, visit


Heather MacDonald
Morneau Shepell

Mike Jurs