Wellbeing in Australia’s Professional Sectors – A Data-Driven Look

In industries where desk and computer work are the norm, we see similarities in physical wellbeing issues. Mental health concerns, on the other hand, are more varied.

Technology has not only changed the kinds of employment society requires, but how people perform their roles.

Drawing on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli from the University of Melbourne have shown that since 1986 routine manual work (think of an assembly line worker) and routine cognitive work (think painstaking data entry) have declined. On the other hand, while still the least common type of work, non-routine manual labour – such as builders and electricians, – has shown a slight increase (to just over 10%).  

The biggest gain has been made by non-routine cognitive work. It now accounts for over 40% of the types of jobs Australians hold. In other words, a lot of us spend a lot of our time doing the kinds of work that we typically associate with the modern white collar worker – device and people oriented and based around problem solving.

A clear example of this shift was that some 67% of Australians were able to work remotely during COVID lockdowns (though of course many people, such as educators, did so on a strictly emergency-measure basis).  

What are the wellbeing issues facing the many Australians working in such roles? Below we look into the research.

An overview

Unlike other industries and jobs where physical health challenges vary, professional sector workers tend to always face the same issue – a sedentary lifestyle. We go into detail about this in the section below.  

To understand the prevalence of physical health compensation claims it’s important to understand how various occupations are defined in Australia. In the eight major groups of occupation types, those working in finance, accounting, consulting, and the other professional service industries almost exclusively classify as managers, professionals, and clerical and administrative workers.

Where this becomes more nuanced is that “professionals” includes education and health care professionals and managers includes management from all industries – so a number of people who are exposed to environments where various injuries are more prevalent. As just one outlier example, think of a doctor who is injured while trying to assist a patient.

With that caveat in mind, it is still useful to note that over half (56.9%) of all serious claims that come from professionals were related to musculoskeletal disorders, according to a Safe Work Australia report. Most of these were caused by “body stressing", which is defined as "injuries or disorders that are the result of stress placed on muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones”.

These injuries include those caused by repetitive movements (think carpal tunnel syndrome) and stress injuries “with no objects being handled,” such as being injured while bending or twisting (which can be caused by poor posture over long periods).  

In an indication that repetitive movement injury claims arise from office work, the report offers this: “Clerical and Administrative workers (not surprisingly, considering their work tasks) most commonly (20%) [experienced] this mechanism within their body stressing group”.

When it comes to mental health, over a fifth (21.6%) of professionals reported having a 12-month mental disorder, about in line with the national average of 21.5%, according to the most recent ABS National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing.  

Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, professionals made 11,906 serious mental health claims – 22% of the total number of such claims – according to a February 2024 Safe Work Australia report on psychological health. The most common cause was “work pressure” at 34% and the second most common (30%) was “work related harassment and/or workplace bullying”.  

Taking a broader view of mental health, while distinguishing between industries, we find varying levels of distress.

An Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) report that looked at employee wellbeing over the 2019-22 period found that 10.4% of consulting and professional services workers were “really struggling” while a promising 31.3% described themselves as “consistently thriving”.

Bnking, finance and insurance workers reported doing measurably worse, only 12.5% said they were consistently thriving and 16.7% said they were really struggling.

Information, technology and telecoms workers were more likely to report being in the middle ranges, with 8.9% describing themselves as consistently thriving and 11.1% saying they were really struggling.

Sedentary work-style

Almost half (46.9%) of working Australians aged 18 to 64 describe their work day as “mostly sitting”, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Survey 2022.

It’s hard to understate just how problematic a sedentary lifestyle can be to the human body. A 2020 study by Jung H Park et al that attempted to update our understanding offered a list of its health risks, including:

  • Reduction of lipoprotein lipase activity, muscle glucose, and protein transporter activities
  • Diminishment of carbohydrate metabolism
  • Decrease in cardiac output and systemic blood flow while activating the sympathetic nervous system, ultimately reducing insulin sensitivity and vascular function  
  • Alteration of the insulin-like growth factor axis and the circulation levels of sex hormones, which elevates the incidence of hormone-related cancers.  

These points are almost verbatim quotes from the study’s abstract, and constituted less than half of the risks listed. Some of the other risks included musculoskeletal issues and “increased all-cause mortality” – in other words, increased chance of death from any cause.

Obviously a sedentary lifestyle is not solely related to work, as factors outside of work including the growing use of sedentary recreation (phone use, gaming, etc) play a role. But the most recent evidence we have suggests that work remains a driving force in sedentary lifestyles.

A 2016 Safe Work Australia literature review on the hazards of sedentary work examined a great number of studies and found the following:

  • Australian research that device-tracked 193 office workers and found that they sat for 7% longer on work days. Also, on work days they sat 14% more during work-hours than during non-work-hours.
  • A different study (that also device-tracked staff) found that work accounted for 58% of longer bouts of sitting (defined as 30 minutes or more)
  • A study by Nyssa T. Hadgraft et al that looked at workers from a Victorian government department found that “on average, 79% of working hours were spent sitting”.

There are more recent demographic trends worth knowing. One study from Elin Johansson et al found that men tend to sit more than women. A US study from Stanford University found that people who could work from home sat for an additional 1.9 hours a day when compared to those who weren’t able to.

A more recent Australian study from 2020 found a connection between sitting time and lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of fatigue, suggesting that this wellbeing issue could also be a retention and productivity issue.

Healthy Business offers Workstation Wellbeing consisting of an online ergonomic assessment and a consultative learning and support program, to ensure employees are operating in an optimal position while working at a computer.  They also offer a practical presentations designed to equip employees with the practical skills and knowledge take charge of their own physical health. This includes a ‘Made to move’ presentation that dives into the fundamentals of exercise – how much we need and its importance to our overall health.  

Remote work

Remote work is now a given in many professional services companies, with 60% of managers and professionals saying they were doing it regularly in the most recent ABS report.  

However, the prevalence of remote working might be decreasing across all industries, with the ABS reporting a 3% drop in those who work from home regularly since from 2021 to 2023. Of course that was a year of lockdowns.

Research published in Organizational Dynamics conducted a survey of 278 workers who began remote work during COVID. It illuminates just how complicated remote work is on people’s wellbeing.

It discovered an increase in productivity emerged alongside a decrease in the meaningfulness workers attached to their tasks. This suggests employers are getting a double-edged sword, better work in the short term but longer term risks of burnout or an intention to leave.

The research also found that while stress decreased, health problems increased. Again, these are trade-offs that are worth monitoring and mitigating.

The remote working issues that’s most likely to get headlines today are to do with the ‘return to the office’. Interestingly for businesses dealing with the post-COVID shift, the same AHRI research found that burnout was most common for those who were “working at home after COVID-19”, with 73.8% saying they experienced burnout sometimes or often.  

This was only slightly ahead of those who said they’d returned to the office after working from home (71.3%).

Delving a little deeper, the latter group was more likely to say they experienced burnout “often” at 28.3% (against 15.8% for those who were still working at home).  

Some of these challenges of a ‘return to the office’ might be ameliorated by an approach that has a different emphasis and design, as Healthy Business outlines in this article on the dangers of loneliness and the benefits of camaraderie.

Sector-specific issues

There is a lot of research done on individual sectors that illuminate the different wellbeing impacts faced by workers depending on their industry. Here are just a few:

In the legal profession, research involving a survey of Australian lawyers (by Nora Chlap and Rhonda Brown) found that not only was burnout related to higher levels of work-stress and lower levels of perceived organisational support (which is true of many work contexts), it found this was associated with lower levels of empathy in lawyers. The researchers note this could have effects on relationships with clients. Continuing that line of logic, you could see how it could impact a legal firm’s bottom line.

In the accounting profession, a survey from PPS Mutual found 35% of respondents experienced a “negative impact from stress related to work targets, seasonal pressures, strict deadlines, miscommunication and continuous change”. This is connected to an issue Healthy Business has talked about – how certain times of the year could be considered psychosocial hazards from a compliance point of view.

The healthcare and social assistance industries had the highest number of serious claims for mental health conditions at over 14,000 between 2017 and 2022, according to a Safe Work Australia report. Almost a third (31%) arose from work related harassment and/or bullying; 25% from work pressure; and 20% from exposure to workplace or occupational violence. The report suggests there are significant cultural challenges facing organisations in this sector. “Workers in the health care and social assistance industry also reported lower than average scores for including job control, praise and recognition, supervisor support, procedural justice, co-worker support and change consultation.”

According to the same report, the education and training sector had the third highest number of serious claims for mental health conditions at over 7,000. Worryingly, there are potential links between wellbeing issues and the teacher shortage Australia is experiencing. A Blackdog Institute study found that just under half (46.8%) of teachers are considering leaving the profession. The report also identified that 52% of teachers reported symptoms of depression and 70% reported “unmanageable workloads”.

Helping you help your company

This article provides an overview of the challenges unique to organisations in the professional services industry, but only scratches the surface. Each organisation faces its own distinct issues, underscoring the need for a tailored approach to well-being.  

At Healthy Business, we specialise in crafting customised wellbeing solutions and advice that caters specifically to your organisation's needs. Get in touch today.

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