Australia has enjoyed 25 years of unbroken growth, but the fading mining and manufacturing sectors, the fallout of global stagnation, and growing casualisation could quite literally be killing us.
It is increasingly clear that employment is crucial to mental wellbeing. When men lose their jobs, they often seem to lose a part of what makes them feel like a man, and can be plunged into a depression of defeat that ends in suicide. And for unemployed women, suicide, self-harm, and suicide attempts are all too common.
As this week’s GDP figure reminded us, Australia’s economy — the creator of our jobs — has had a lucky run. We’ve kept our collective heads above the dark waters of recession through the Asian financial crises, the dot.com bust and even the global financial crisis.
The close link between the economy, the labour market and mental health is too often overlooked, according to Anthony Smith, national coordinator of Menswatch, an initiative of the Australian Institute of Male Health and Studies.
“The fundamental thing is that men, and women too, need to have an income that guarantees they can live with meaning and purpose,” Mr Smith said.
“At the moment, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in this country who haven’t got that sort of work and security, and we’ve got these really disastrous rates of suicide and self-harm across both men and women.
“We are really stepping aside from accepting the truth.”
This link is backed by research. For example, an Oxford University study published in 2015 found that male unemployment in Europe triggered by the global financial crisis contributed to an increase in European suicide rates. It also found that European countries that invested more in unemployment aid programs suffered lower rates.
An Australian study published in 2014 found similar results. It reported that, during 2001 and 2010, economically inactive and unemployed males were four times more likely to kill themselves — and women eight times. And these rates increased during the GFC (2007-09).
This week’s national accounts provided, on the face of it, good news for Australia. It showed the economy grew 0.5 per cent in April-June, half the pace of the previous three months, but enough to push the annual rate to a four-year high of 3.3 per cent.
But the current pace of GDP growth is creating jobs at only about two-thirds of the usual rate, and the number of hours worked is rising at half-pace.
Unemployment is 5.7 per cent, perilously close to the 6 per cent that politicians so fear. And the official cash rate, 1.5 per cent, is the lowest ever in Australian history. These are reminders that the economy, and thus the labour market, is subdued.
Industry Super Australia chief economist Stephen Anthony said he doubted if the labour market is delivering the rising incomes and extra hours that workers want. “If that is trapping certain segments of people in the labour market who aspire to work hard and to work into different activities, then this is definitely a problem for policy.”
Officially, about 2,300 Australians kill themselves each year. The majority (more than 75 per cent) are male. But these numbers are widely believed to be grossly underreported, and do not capture the great number of suicide attempts (many female).
The costs to the economy are huge. KPMG estimated in 2013 that male suicides cost the economy about $1.4 billion and female suicides $175 million each year.
Super funds and insurance companies suffer losses when families claim for death benefits and workers for disability. The un- and underemployed struggle to save for retirement, increasing the burden on the age pension. And there are significant productivity losses.
Margot Lydon, CEO of SuperFriend, an industry super fund initiative that promotes workplace mental health, acknowledged these costs are “terrible”, “enormous” and “really pervasive”. But she encouraged the financial sector, and Australia generally, to view the problem as a “tremendous opportunity” for improvement.
“What economic opportunity would there be of having greater economic participation in work, and in good work, and that being a known factor that supports and improves people’s health overall, not just mental health, as well as the economic and financial benefits? There’s a tremendous opportunity for Australia.”