Each year, as part of National Psychology Week (NPW), the APS conducts a survey on a topic of relevance to psychology and of interest to the community. This year, the APS undertook a survey examining the stress and wellbeing of Australians to provide insight into the psychological health of the Australian population. An online research company was engaged to undertake the fieldwork to ensure a stratified and representative sample of the Australian population.
While stress is a part of everyday life, research to date has indicated that excessive amounts of stress have been linked to impaired functioning across a range of areas including home, work life and relationships and can impact on physical and psychological health. The APS ‘state-of-the-nation’ survey examined the amount of stress and wellbeing Australians are experiencing, as well as the key sources of stress and what people are doing to manage their stress. In addition, the survey explored associations between stress, wellbeing, mental health and strategies for seeking support to manage stress.
This article presents the findings of the survey, which generated a large amount of attention during this year’s National Psychology Week. Two tip sheets were also prepared to help members of the community manage stress and enhance their wellbeing in everyday life and in the workplace, and to be able to recognise when professional help may be of assistance.
The APS survey findings generated widespread media coverage across TV, radio, print and online, with over 150 separate media items reaching an estimated audience of over six million people. Much of the coverage focused on the higher levels of stress being experienced by young Australian adults. The media interest generated by the survey was so strong that the NSW Minister for Mental Health and Healthy Lifestyles was prompted to issue his own media release based on the survey results. The topic of stress generated interest across Australia and many outlets sought the input of local psychologists for their stories, which has created opportunities for APS psychologists to showcase their expertise.
KEY SURVEY FINDINGS
An online survey was developed to gather information about the stress and wellbeing of the Australian population. Survey development was informed by an expert content group and survey questions incorporated a number of validated measures of stress and wellbeing (such as the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale [K-10; CRUFAD, 2000], the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983), the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (Tennant et al. 2007) and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995). A total of 1,537 adults completed the online survey.
Approximately equal numbers of men and women took part in the survey and participants represented a spread across age range and population location that matched ABS statistics.
On all of the key measures, younger Australian adults reported significantly higher levels of stress and distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms and significantly lower levels of wellbeing when compared to those in the older age groups. In particular, those in the 18 to 25 age group reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms when compared to the older age groups. These results are comparable to those of other countries where older adults report lower levels of stress and higher levels of mental health and wellbeing (Cohen, & Janicki-deverts, in press; Taulbut, Parkinson, Catto, & Gordon, 2009). Nevertheless, the high levels of stress experienced by younger adults as indicated here is concerning and warrants further investigation. A substantial percentage of Australians (12%) reported experiencing a level of distress considered to be in the severe range.
Women reported significantly higher levels of perceived stress than men but did not score differently to men on measures of wellbeing, anxiety and depression. Previous research shows that women report more stressful life events than do men (Cohen, & Janicki-deverts, in press) and the results of this study confirm this finding but may also indicate that high levels of perceived stress may not necessarily have a higher impact on women’s mental health and general wellbeing.
People who were retired, married or in a relationship (but without children) reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing than the general population, while those with a relationship breakdown in the past 12 months and those who were separated but not divorced reported significantly lower levels of wellbeing. Sole parents and those who were not married reported significantly higher levels of perceived stress.
Education and income levels also appear to play a role in reported wellbeing, with a higher education and income associated with higher levels of wellbeing while those with lower levels of education reported significantly more perceived stress when compared to the general population.
Almost one in three Australians (32%) reported experiencing depressive symptoms, with 10 per cent of these indicating symptoms in the severe or extremely severe range. Similarly, one in four of the population reported experiencing anxiety (26%). Of these, nine per cent scored in the severe or extremely severe range. As with the results on the stress measures, measures of anxiety and depression decreased in a graded fashion with increasing age. There were no significant gender differences reported for anxiety or depression.
In looking at specific characteristics of the population, those who reported not being married or, those with a recent relationship breakdown and those separated but not divorced reported significantly higher levels of both anxiety and depression when compared to overall population levels. Interestingly, when the relationship breakdown occurred more than one year earlier, there was no significant difference in reported symptoms of anxiety and depression between this group and the general population, suggesting that the most stressful period following a relationship breakdown is the first 12 months.
Of note is the finding that full-time students also scored significantly higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms compared to the general population. Indeed, this may, in part, explain the experiences of young adults in this study, as full-time students represented more than a third of the adults in the 18 to 25 age range. Another source of stress for the younger adult group may be in the workplace, with those in the 18 to 25 age range reporting significantly lower levels of job satisfaction, job interest and work life balance than the general population.
When asked about the primary sources of stress, financial issues, personal health issues, family issues and the health of others were identified as generating the most stress. People who have experienced a recent family or relationship breakdown, people who are currently separated but not divorced, sole parents and people living with their parents reported higher levels of stress and distress and lower levels of wellbeing than the general population, suggesting that difficult interactions with others may be a considerable source of stress.
Some gender differences in the issues that cause stress were found. Men were significantly more likely to be concerned about the economy and the political climate, while women were significantly more likely to be concerned with family issues and personal health issues (see Figure 1). Differences were also found across the age range with younger people, particularly those below 35 years of age being more concerned about friendships, relationship issues, environmental issues and matters related to work and study. Concerns about these four issues reduced significantly with increasing age. Sole parents and those who were separated also reported being significantly more concerned with friendship and relationship issues than the general population.
Not unexpectedly, a considerable number of people (30%) identified issues in the workplace as being a contributor to their stress levels. Men were more likely to report workplace issues as contributing to their stress (34%) than were women (28%) and these figures are relatively consistent with international research on the workplace as a contributor to stress. Considerable age differences in reports of workplace stress were found, with a gradual reduction in identifying work issues as contributing to stress with increased age. Nevertheless, for some people aspects of the workplace contributed to positive health and wellbeing, with lower scores on stress, distress, anxiety and depression. These people reported that their job was interesting, they were paid appropriately, felt valued by their employer and were satisfied with their work/life balance. These findings are in line with research looking at work practices, which indicates that the workplace can be a source of wellbeing, providing a means for individual satisfaction and accomplishment (Blustein, 2008).
Australians reported engaging in a range of daily activities to manage their stress (see Figure 2). Of some concern is that 40 per cent of Australians reported drinking alcohol to help them to manage their stress and almost half found this an effective strategy. Also concerning is the fact that 66 per cent of Australians used food and 46 per cent used shopping as a way of managing their stress, with about half of those who used them finding them to be effective strategies. A large proportion of people reported using strategies that would either distract them or relax them (e.g., watching television, reading, listening to music). The most effective strategy for managing stress was reported to be spending time with friends (60%), followed by listening to music (55%) and watching television (55%).
People were asked whether they sought professional help to manage their symptoms of stress. Almost 20 per cent of people reported seeking help from their general practitioner or other medical professional and 15 per cent reported that they had sought help from a mental health professional. However, it seems that people are more likely to seek help from those around them than from professionals, with 22 per cent of people reporting that they sought help from a family member and 25 per cent sought help from a friend.
Of particular interest was the help seeking behaviour of those experiencing a high level of distress. This was examined by looking specifically at scores on the K-10, a measure of psychological distress based on symptoms of anxiety and depression. When looking specifically at help-seeking behaviour of those people in the high risk group, contact with health professionals increased considerably with 42 per cent of this group seeking help from a general practitioner or other medical professional, 20 per cent seeking help from a psychologist, 15 per cent from a counsellor and 10 per cent from other mental health professionals . Not surprisingly, those scoring in the low risk range of the K-10 were the least likely to report seeking help to manage their stress.
Dr Rebecca Mathews MAPS, Manager, Practice Standards and Dr Lynne Casey MAPS, Senior Manager, Communications, National Office
The full report on the APS Stress and Wellbeing Survey for National Psychology Week can be found on the APS website at www.psychology.org.au/NPW/survey/