As part of its commitment to promoting community mental health awareness and psychological wellbeing, for the fourth consecutive year the APS commissioned a stress and wellbeing survey of a representative sample of the Australian adult population. The survey provides a year-on-year comparison of how Australians are faring, with this year’s focus on stress, wellbeing and concerns about staying healthy. The survey aims to provide insights that will benefit the psychological and physical health of Australians. The 2014 survey results were released during National Psychology Week and generated significant media attention.

Stress in Australians

The overall survey results paint a complex, varied and often concerning picture of how stress is affecting different people throughout society. For all age categories, stress levels remain higher than when the survey began in 2011, although there are variations within age groups. One in four Australians reported moderate to severe levels of distress this year. However, there were some positive results too, such as higher reported levels of wellbeing than in 2013 and the fact that levels of stress are down slightly compared to last year. (However, stress levels are still higher than in 2012 and 2011.)

Financial concerns remain the leading cause of stress, with nearly half (49%) of all survey participants citing it as the highest source of stress, followed by family issues (45%), personal health issues (42%), trying to stay healthy (39%) and the health of others (36%).

Key survey findings
  • Levels of stress and distress were significantly lower than 2013, although still higher than those reported in 2012 and 2011.
  • Women report significantly higher levels of stress than men and a lower level of wellbeing.
  • Financial concerns are the biggest single stressor for all Australians.
  • 45% of Australians identify their workplace as a source of stress.
  • Young Australians report the highest levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms of all age groups.
  • 59% of young Australians are worried about money.
  • 64% of Australians report that stress was having at least some impact on their mental health.
  • 72% of Australians say that stress is having at least some impact on their physical health.
  • 40% of Australians are stressed by the need to stay healthy.
  • 43% of Australians report that not getting back on track after a relapse prevents them from maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

 

Gender differences

There is a marked gender imbalance when it comes to wellbeing. In contrast to previous years’ findings, men reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing than women. Older Australians (66 years and above) continued to report significantly higher levels of wellbeing compared with other Australians. Australians aged 18-25 and 46-55 reported the lowest levels of wellbeing.

Money was the top source of stress for men (44%) and women (53%). Women were significantly more likely than men to be concerned about most sources of stress, including money, family and relationships, the health of themselves or others and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Men were significantly more likely than women to be stressed by political issues. Men and women reported similar levels of concern about the economy, workplace, the environment and personal safety.

Workplace stress

The workplace remains a key cause of stress, with two in five working people (45%) identifying it as a source of stress. Work was also implicated in health outcomes, with more than half of Australians citing ‘work demands’ as a barrier to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Levels of workplace wellbeing were similar to last year but still significantly lower than in 2012 and 2011. Australians also

reported significantly lower levels of work satisfaction than in 2012 and 2011, and significantly lower levels of work-life balance satisfaction than in 2011. Working Australians reported similar levels of job stress to those in 2013, but this was still significantly higher than in 2012 and 2011. They also reported significantly lower levels of interest in their job than in 2012. Working Australians also felt there was a higher ‘likelihood of unemployment’ than in 2011.

Stress among different age groups

Some of the most concerning findings of the survey were about young adults (18-25 and 26-35 age groups), who reported the highest levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms of all age groups. They also reported higher stress and distress levels than older Australians and lower levels of wellbeing. And while financial stress was the single biggest stressor across all age groups, it caused higher levels of stress for young people than any other age group. Concern about relationships and personal safety was highest among those aged 18-25 and 26-35.

Older people, aged 66 and above, continued to report significantly lower levels of stress and distress.

Experience of depressive and anxiety symptoms

Almost two in five people reported experiencing some depressive symptoms, with 13% reporting severe to extremely severe levels of depressive symptoms. More than a quarter reported experiencing at least some anxiety, with 13% reporting severe to extremely severe anxiety symptoms. Similar to previous years, younger adults reported significantly higher levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms than older Australians. This year, men reported significantly higher levels of anxiety than women.

Impact of stress

The survey provides evidence about how stress affects people’s physical and mental health. Consistent with previous years, just over seven in ten Australians (72%) reported that stress was having some impact on their physical health, with almost one in five (17%) reporting that stress was having a strong to very strong impact on their physical health. Similar to 2013, almost two in three people (64%) said that stress was having an impact on their mental health, with almost one in five (19%) saying that it was having a strong to very strong impact. More than one in five (22%) said their mental health was a source of stress.

Ways of managing stress

Australians manage stress in a range of ways, using activities to relax and to change their thinking and behaviour, including thinking positively, adjusting their expectations and avoiding stressful people and situations. The top five ways of managing stress were watching TV or movies (87%), spending time with family and friends (83%), focusing on the positives (81%), listening to music (80%) and reading (76%).

Special focus for 2014: The stress of striving to stay healthy

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important to the majority of Australians, with four in five (79%) agreeing it is important, but efforts to stay healthy and motivated emerged as a key source of stress. This is an important consideration for public health policy analysts and decision makers, as well as for the health and wellbeing of society at large. To investigate this further, Australians were asked about their attitudes, activities, strategies and the barriers to staying healthy.

Most Australians are actively trying to improve their health: 87% had made an effort in the past 12 months to maintain a healthy lifestyle, with the most common reasons being because it’s the right thing to do (97%), to feel better about themselves (95%) and to reduce stress (90%). Australians reported the social benefits of pursuing a healthy lifestyle, with 66% agreeing that maintaining a healthy lifestyle provided opportunities to get together with others.

People who had made efforts to be healthier – e.g., eating healthily, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep – reported significantly higher levels of overall wellbeing and lower levels of stress and distress, and significantly lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms  than those who didn’t engage in those activities.

Strategies and barriers to achieving healthy goals

A number of strategies and activities helped people achieve their health-related goals. Australians reported believing in their own ability to take action (85%) and having the desire to change (83%) supported their lifestyle goals. Identifying and managing triggers (71%) and changing one’s mindset about healthy and unhealthy behaviours (75%) also emerged as key psychological factors cited as helpful in supporting lifestyle change.

Despite most people feeling it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, they reported a number of barriers to being healthier. Unexpected life events (63%), loss of motivation (61%), expense (60%) and lack of time (59%) were the chief barriers reported. Family demands (51%) and work demands (48%) were also barriers. Three in ten Australians (32%) reported a lack of knowledge about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle as being a barrier.

While many people are able to start a health regime, many also found it hard to maintain it, with four in ten (43%) reporting that not getting back on track after a relapse had prevented them from maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Stress and obesity

The survey findings of the experience of people with obesity add evidence to its adverse impacts on wellbeing and physical health, as well as efforts to stay healthy.

Obese Australians reported significantly lower levels of overall wellbeing than non-obese Australians and were more likely to report that stress was having an impact on their physical health. To manage stress, obese Australians were more likely to report eating something and sleeping more than the non-obese group. Obese Australians were also less likely to report doing something active, relaxing or spiritual. They were also significantly less likely than the non-obese group to report that doing something active was an effective way of managing stress. Significantly more obese Australians sought help to manage their stress in the past 12 months from general practitioners and mental health professionals than non-obese Australians.

They were more likely than those without obesity to be suffering from one or more chronic conditions. The top five barriers to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for obese people were loss of motivation (69%), unexpected life events (68%), too expensive (64%), lack of time (60%) and physical injury or illness (57%). 

 

APS stress survey brings extensive media attention

The media campaign for the APS Stress and Wellbeing Survey 2014 focused on the findings that men had higher levels of wellbeing than women, and that women were more stressed. The gender imbalance on stress resonated with the media and this main story was widely distributed across print, TV, radio and online.

Coverage was extensive, nationwide and included about 385 individual media items on TV, radio, in print and online about NPW events and various aspects of the survey, reaching an audience of over 50 million people.

Media highlights

  • An estimated 259 radio news stories on the survey findings featuring audio quotes from Lyn Littlefield plus an additional 38 radio interviews.
  • A feature TV segment on ABC News 24 Weekends on Sunday morning, with Amanda Gordon Hon FAPS.
  • Print stories in more than 30 metropolitan and regional newspapers around Australia, including the Sunday Telegraph (NSW), Sunday Mail (SA) and Herald Sun – some of the country’s most read papers.
  • Online stories syndicated in 35 outlets including the Guardian online.

Social media/web

Social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook) were used to take the message (key findings, tips, advice) to a wide and diverse audience. Followers and engagement across all APS social media channels grew by over 180%, with the NPW Facebook page as the standout, with more than 10,000 followers, up from 3,700. More than 5,000 people visited the NPW landing page during the week to read about the survey findings.

 

Managing stress  resource

The APS created a range of resources to complement the 2014 Stress and Wellbeing Survey, and these were used to help promote both the survey and National Psychology Week. The resources were prepared for use by both psychologists and members of the public.

These resources include:

  • A full report of the survey results
  • An illustrated, four-page summary of the report
  • A tipsheet on understanding and managing stress
  • A six-step tip brochure on how to make sustainable healthy lifestyle changes
  • A poster/flyer on ‘Tips for healthy lifestyle change’
  • A range of online infographics, illustrating ‘How Australians Manage Stress’ and breaking the results down into particular areas.

The resources can be found at: www.psychology.org.au/NPW/stresstips/

 

About the survey
The APS, in conjunction with an online research company, conducted the survey with a representative sample of Australians aged 18 and above (N=1,602) and included a subsample of people with obesity (N=443). The national sample was matched on Australian Bureau of Statistics data for age, gender, geographical location and work status. The obesity oversample was identified according to criteria for obesity using Body Mass Index (BMI) criteria. The survey utilised standardised measures of stress, wellbeing, anxiety and depression. The APS Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey project is guided by an expert panel of APS members and the host university is Swinburne University, Melbourne.

 

The full report on the APS Stress and Wellbeing Survey 2014 can be found on the APS website at www.psychology.org.au/NPW/survey. Your feedback about the survey is welcome – please send to psychologyweek@psychology.org.au. What do you like about the survey? How would you improve it? What would you like to see as the focus in 2015?

Dr Lynne Casey MAPS, Executive Manager, Communications and Marketing, and Rachel Pui-Tak Liang MAPS, Project Officer, APS National Office

InPsych December 2014