In this guest post, Nature’s Todd Cope and Chris Crook present research via Nature and The Lab that shows the importance of health, mental health, family and financial stability during the global pandemic…
Seven in 10 Australians name their family’s health and wellbeing in their top 3 most important things in life right now. In the days since late March, as Australia has begun to flatten the curve and Australians have begun to feel more at ease, concern for the health and wellbeing of one’s family has remained top of the list of ‘life focal points’.
It is particularly pronounced as a concern among older Australians – the figure rising to 8 in 10 for those aged 55-64 (78%) and those aged 65+ (84%). By extension, concerns over family health and wellbeing are least pronounced among those aged under 34 (65% name this as a concern right now).
Whilst the most dominant concern of Australians today is, en masse, the ‘health and wellbeing of my family’, this is followed by a focus on ‘my mental wellbeing’ and ‘my long-term financial security’, named by 44% and 43% of Australians, respectively, as the things most important in their lives today.
It’s notable that matters such as health and wellbeing of my family, mental wellbeing, financial and job security, physical fitness, and eating well are significantly more to the fore of Australians’ minds right now as compared with concerns such sustainability, me time, work life balance, and social life. This is entirely in line with changes recently observed by us and our partners at The Lab, as to the shifting values of Australian society – notably the rise of resilience and slippage of empathy.
In this article we pay particular attention to the areas of mental health and long-term financial security, with a view to better understanding who in Australian society is naming these factors as prime in their life right now.
We also seek to understand who they are demographically and attitudinally as well as their shopping patterns and changes to their behaviour more broadly.
Mental health and wellbeing has become increasingly important to Australians as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, moving from the third to the second most important area in Australians’ lives. The importance of mental wellbeing has increased directionally from 41 per cent on the 29th of March, 2020 to 45 per cent on April 13th, 2020. Concerns around mental wellbeing are particularly pronounced among those aged 45-64, increasing to one in two (50 per cent) listing this as a concern right now. This is entirely consistent with the observation that well-known commentators such as Bernard Salt are making about the pressures those in the Baby Boomer generation will increasingly find themselves under at the hand of COVID-19 (refer ‘Generational Boom, Crash – and then Reset’, The Australian, April 11, 2020).
Attitudinally, those who say their mental health is in their top three concerns feel more isolated and alone (37 per cent vs 33 per cent total) presenting a challenge for this group to keep in contact with friends and family.
Of note is that younger Australians (16-34) feel the most isolated and alone and place more importance on their social life than any other age group (40 per cent and 15 per cent respectively).
To help fill this social void, and to combat this sense of loneliness, the number of Australians using technology to stay in touch with their friends and family has increased by 39 per cent (and by 45 per cent for 16-34s). As one respondent put it: “It’s been so hard not being able to physically be in contact and being unable to together with my friends. Another of my friends who also lives on her own I’ve been calling a lot more as I know she is having a hard time, I left a platter on her doorstep last week to see her briefly”.
Positively, and perhaps most importantly, Australians are open to using telehealth to talk about their mental health. One in 10 of our respondents claim to have received counselling or connected with a psychologist or mental health service over the phone or online. Another 16 per cent say they intend to. This comes within the context of broader openness to using telehealth services and online exercise classes.
Those who rate mental wellbeing in their top three most important areas of life are significantly more likely to have had, or intend to have, a telehealth session with a GP (53 per cent vs 43 per cent). They are twice as likely to have had, or intend to have, a telehealth session with a Psychologist / Mental Health Service compared do those who do not rate mental wellbeing in their top three concerns (36 per cent vs 16 cent). This suggests Australia is in a positive position moving forwards. Our research echoes an increase in calls by 30 per cent to BeyondBlue’s 24/7 hotline since social restrictions came into force (refer ‘Mental health and COVID-19 — how the coronavirus is affecting our way of life’, ABC News, 18/04/2020).
Whilst many Australians are reaching out for help, openness to telehealth decreases with age, potentially due to stigma or a lack of access, awareness or knowledge about how to access these services. That is, “Those who need more support are less likely to seek it. As one respondent put it “I think online sessions are good for some people, I haven’t tapped into any online sessions myself, I actually feel less inclined that I would benefit from speaking about it as I actually think, well everyone is in the same boat, what’s to be achieved from this?”
Important areas of life data collected from a nationally representative sample of n=1800 Australians aged 16+ from the 27th of March to the 13th of April. 16-34 (n=603), 35-44 (n=333), 45-64 (n=609), 65+ (n=255). Q. Of the following, which are the three most important to you right now? Q. How old are you?
Openness to telehealth data collected from a nationally representative sample of n=700 Australians aged 16+ from the 16th to the 20th of April, 2020. 16-34 (n=200), 35-44 (n=133), 45-64 (n=244), 65+ (n=123). Q. Now thinking about the following, which best describes your intentions to make use of each of the below?
Australians are also turning to a number of other practices that could be helping stave off mental health declines. Key changes in how people spend their time include taking up hobbies (+20%), meditating (+8%), and exercising (+5%).
Another such behaviour to help stave off mental health declines could be a considered use of media channels. In a 2009 study, increased screen time was found to be inversely associated with all mental health indicators amongst youths (refer ‘The Independent and Interactive Associations of Screen Time and Physical Activity on Mental Health, School Connectedness and Academic Achievement among a Population-Based Sample of Youth, Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2009), and similar results have also been found in adults (refer ‘Association between screen time and depression among US adults’, Preventive Medicine Reports, 2017). Across April 3 in 10 Australians say they feel worse after watching the news (32%), compared to just 1 in 10 who feel better (8%). For those who rate mental wellbeing in their top 3 most important areas of life right now, the proportion who feel worse after watching the news rises to 35%, significantly higher compared to those who don’t rate mental wellbeing as important (30%). This suggests that media consumption is at the very least correlated with mental wellbeing in the time of COVID. “I’m severely limiting my media consumption of online news, as I’ve noticed that was really making me very anxious. I had got into checking it obsessively and I’ve had to put limits on myself”
Against this it is important to note that since social restrictions were put in place, media usage has increased by 18% on average. For those who rate mental wellbeing in their top 3 most important areas of life, however, the increase in media usage since social restrictions came into effect is directionally lower, at 16%. The gap between those who do rate mental health in their top 3 and those who do not is particularly pronounced for YouTube, Foxtel, and paid streaming services.
These findings correlate with shifts we are seeing in purchase intent for those who rate their mental health as important right now. They are less likely to consider signing up for streaming services (+6%) and subscription TV (-1%) than those who don’t rate mental wellbeing as important at +13% and +4% respectively.
As the lockdown continues and as Australians remain physically isolated from others, it will be important for the conversation around mental health to continue to be at the fore so those who need support know that it is there, know how to access it, and most importantly, feel comfortable reaching out for help – particularly our most vulnerable, older Australians.
Long-term financial security
Beyond mental health, 4 in 10 Australians say long-term financial security is in their top 3 most important areas of life right now (43%). In the weeks since the COVID-19 crisis began, triggering a likely global recession, long-term financial security has remained one of the most important factors to Australians.
Of note is that only 3 in 10 Australians feel very financially secure (27%) and 5 in 10 are worried about the impact on their superannuation (50%). Those who are worried about their long-term financial security are much more likely to be worried about their superannuation (58%) and to feel less financially secure (24%).
Concern over long-term financial security is particularly pronounced amongst those very close to retirement (60-64), with concern rising to over 1 in 2 (56%). Conversely, those who are younger and less financially independent do not see this as high a priority right now. Only 3 in 10 16-17 year olds are concerned (27%), the figure rising slightly to 1 in 3 among 18-24 year olds (33%).
As the importance of long-term financial security increases with age, it also increases in importance for those with children aged 16+ or for those who are married/de-facto – rising to 1 in 2 for both groups (47% and 49% respectively).
Attitudinally, they are also more likely to say they are ‘worried about job security’, think that this ‘whole situation could lead to an economic depression’ and feel that ‘prioritising myself/my family is the most important thing’.
“Our prime driver is saving money; our earnings are a quarter of what it normally is no we’re ok we’ve made some changes. I am really worried on a macro level about the long-term economic impact, that this goes on long enough we hit that tipping point when business lose confidence and make huge redundancies”(Female, 41).
The combinations of these concerns and attitudes play out across a range of behaviours that have changed due to COVID-19.
The number of Australians keeping a closer eye on their finances has increased by 25% since the COVID-19 outbreak began, and 23% more Australians are taking more action to plan their finances.
“I still have the security of sustainable income coming in, but I’m being careful with my spending, knowing if anything bonkers happens then I have a cushion that continues to grow. That extra money I’m not spending is being channelled into a savings account and paying off a credit card loan” (Female, 31)
Whilst many Australians’ financial behaviours have changed, those who are concerned about their long-term financial security are more likely to act. Of note is that they are more likely to be checking investments / the stock market, their superannuation balances, getting financial advice, or seeking financial assistance from the Government.
Given that many Australians are concerned about their long-term financial security, and we know they are taking action to try and improve their finances, what impact has this had on their shopping behaviour?
More broadly, we see that Australians have increased spending in categories that provide entertainment, are available online, or will improve their environment at home. Three notable cases of this are online education (+12%), Streaming services (+10%) and Hardware / Household DIY products (+4%).
However, when we look at the categories with increased spend due to COVID-19, amongst those who are concerned about their long-term financial security, purchase intent is lower across all categories compared to those who do not rate long-term financial security as important.
With a global recession likely and the possibility that concern over long-term financial security may rise as a result (refer ‘Why the Global Recession Could Last a Long Time’, The New York Times, April 1, 2020), we can then reasonably expect that although some categories may boom, overall, Australians will be spending less in the near future. Spending less will in turn put downward pressure on the broader economy, which could then further fuel fears over long-term financial security. The question is, what will it take to stop this cycle, abate concerns of financial security, and return our economy to growth?
To help understand this further we can investigate shifts in purchase intent across a range of categories and across age groups (as this largely explains differences in long-term financial security). When asked how purchase intent has changed since COVID-19, across a range of 19 categories ranging from low involvement products such as cleaning products, to high involvement products such as household appliances (i.e. washing machines, fridges, etc.), average purchase intent decreases with age. To bring purchase intent in Australia back to pre-covid levels, it will be important to reinstate faith in the long-term financial outlook of many, particularly those aged 45+.
Australia is undoubtedly undergoing an unprecedented economic and societal shift that is far from coming to an end. Areas of life that are important to Australians have changed, will continue to change, and will evolve in different ways for different groups of people. As we flatten the curve and the general health risk somewhat subsides (at least in the minds of Australians), we have seen more of a focus on the important topics of mental health and long-term financial security.
Since March, while overall health and wellbeing has remained the most important, mental wellbeing has risen in the ranks of what is important to Australians right now, particularly for those nearing retirement. For younger Australians, the importance of mental health is largely related to feelings of being isolated and alone.
Whilst many are open to talking about challenges with mental health, this openness decreases with age despite the importance of mental wellbeing increasing. It is imperative that we find new ways of increasing motivation and ability to access mental health services for those who need them, with tailored strategies to reach all groups effectively.
Rebuilding long-term financial security is a key step in Australia’s recovery from this crisis, and for individuals, long-term financial security remains of high importance. This is particularly the case for those who have less time to recover from a recession before retirement. That is, those who are closer to retirement place a greater importance on their long-term financial security.
The direction in which we see the importance of long-term financial security move in the future may well be an indicator of whether Australians’ confidence is returning and reticence to spend is diminishing.
Overall, whilst we can observe macro-economic trends at a total level, we cannot paint this situation with a broad brush. Both government and industry have an obligation to understand Australians in depth and with nuance, so that Australia can recover physically, financially – and most importantly, mentally – as quickly as possible.