Australian workers exhausted, unprepared for technological future of work, report says

A comprehensive survey of 1,400 Australian workers asked about their work experience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australian workers are exhausted, disengaged, at risk of leaving and largely unprepared for future workplace challenges driven by automation and artificial intelligence, a new report from the University of Melbourne’s Hallmark Work Futures research initiative reveals.

A comprehensive survey of 1,400 Australian workers conducted in June 2022 asked about their work experience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Findings published in the State of the Future of Work 2023 Report reveal that Australian workers have been in poorer physical and mental health since the start of the pandemic, with workers at the highest ages (between 25-55) are significantly affected, one-third of whom considered giving up.

Report co-author and sociologist Dr Brendan Churchill said: “With high levels of fatigue and burnout among younger and middle-aged workers, it’s no surprise that over a third of Australia’s prime-age workers are considering leaving your job.

“Australian workplaces must prioritize worker wellbeing in the recovery to provide greater support in dealing with
burnout and mental stress.”

Automation and the use of AI are expected to have a major impact on the way Australians work in the future, including the arrival of ChatGPT, which can type language with human-like efficiency. AI advances are poised to reduce human decision-making, but the report found Australian workers are largely unprepared for these challenges.

Report co-author and human geographer Professor David Bissell said: “We found that most Australians are not overly concerned about being replaced by AI and automation at work and believe their skills are sufficient to cope with the challenges ahead.

“However, our research shows that Australians are cautious adopters of new technologies in the workplace. One in five say they only adopt new technology in the workplace when forced to, so we need to understand the reasons behind this and facilitate the use of technology that is inclusive for everyone.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on caregivers – people who look after others in their lives – citing school closures, working from home and reduced access to outside care as additional stressors for working in a challenging pandemic environment.

Working caregivers are more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs and to consider leaving than non-caregiver colleagues. Four in 10 working carers feel their career options are limited.

Co-author of the report and expert on gender inequality, Professor Leah Rupaner, said: “Care workers are working more than before the pandemic and are at risk of burnout in the workplace. We often focus on female carers, but our report found that male carers are also exhausted, less productive and see fewer opportunities for advancement.

“Workplaces need to take a more holistic approach to care, including ensuring that men also have access to flexible working and employment policies.”

Thirty-eight percent of workers reported having a chronic illness – up from the 32 percent found in Australia’s last census in 2021 – which researchers say may reflect the onset of Long COVID and the increasing mental stress of work during of the pandemic. Over 40% of people with chronic illnesses want to quit their jobs.

Almost three-quarters of workers with a chronic illness said their illness was made worse by their work.

The report also found that discrimination in the workplace is more widespread than previously found. Discrimination remains widespread, particularly against women, people with chronic conditions and their carers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Almost two-thirds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents said they had been refused a job because they were Indigenous. People with chronic illnesses report similar levels of denial because of their illness.

Despite the grim findings, Australian workers have found the flexible ways of working required during the pandemic make them happier and more productive, and a majority say continued flexible working arrangements are crucial to them staying with their current employers.

Professor Leah Rupaner said: “There is this false assumption that in-person work was ideal for most before the pandemic – but for mothers, carers and people living with chronic illness, it wasn’t.

“The return to normal is a return to unequal work experiences and outcomes for these groups. The pandemic has highlighted the personal and professional benefits of flexible and remote ways of working for many, and it is clear that most Australian workers do not want to return to a ‘traditional’ working environment.”

The report calls on governments to improve Australia’s readiness for the future of work by providing free universal high-quality childcare; legislating workers’ access to flexible and remote work as a workplace right in line with other OECD countries; and ensuring equal access to technological upskilling, particularly for traditionally underrepresented groups – to respond to the demographic, technological and geographical changes facing Australia.

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