Problems getting enough work, breaking back into the workforce or getting a break from overwork are taking their toll on millions of Australian workers, making us sick and leading to less productive and enjoyable workplaces. Whether employees are overworked, underworked or out of work, millions are feeling stressed and their mental health and general health is suffering as a consequence.

This paper explores the reasons Australians are struggling to achieve a healthy work-life balance and the impacts this is having on mental health and workplace environments.

Taking a longer break in the form of annual leave is considered crucial to prevent burnout and poor health, yet the majority of Australian workers do not take their full leave each year.

Over half of the respondents to this survey (52 per cent) did not take their full leave entitlements in 2012. Australian workers are stockpiling their annual leave, accruing 128 million days in annual leave – or more than 350,000 years – of holidays in 2012.

The survey found a strong correlation between work-related stress and not taking leave breaks. Respondents who did not take all their annual leave in 2012 were markedly more likely to report having negative feelings about work: 39 per cent felt stressed about work; 28 per cent felt anxious; 24 per cent were worried and 21 per cent were overwhelmed.

Taking a daily lunch break also seems to be becoming a thing of the past – 3.8 million Australian workers routinely don’t take a lunch break, with one in two of them saying it’s because they are ‘too busy’.

This report also finds that returning to the workforce after a lengthy break – for example, to act as a carer – is more difficult when you’re older.

A large majority of respondents (63 per cent) report that they, or someone they know, have been out of the workforce for more than three months in the past two years. One third has experienced this themselves.

A large percentage of young people (53 per cent) say the reason they are out of the workforce is because they cannot find a job, while the top reason for those aged 55–64 is sickness or ill-health.

One in four respondents who were out of work identified age discrimination as the main barrier to workforce re-entry. This increases with age – 41 per cent of those in the 55–64 age group and 66 per cent of those over 65 identified this barrier.

The youngest and oldest age groups, however, are less inclined to take a pay cut to return to work. One in five people over 65 (19 per cent) and one in four of 17–24 year olds (26 per cent) say they would consider taking a substantial pay cut compared to an average 44 per cent across the other age groups.

The findings of this survey clearly indicate that involuntary time out of the workforce is predominantly a negative experience for most people. Loss of confidence, depression and anxiety were the most commonly reported experiences as a result of time out of work, after financial worries.

This paper also explores the experiences of the ‘overworked’ and the ‘underworked’. Of those who feel overworked, one in four report anxiety, 3.3 million experience loss of sleep and 50 per cent would like to spend more time with their family. Meanwhile, 1.1 million Australians found involuntary time out of the workforce demoralising and one in five experience anxiety due to their time out of the workforce.

While there is no single solution for a problem as diverse and deep seated as the inability of the labour market to deliver the hours of work desired by the population, there is a range of partial solutions that can both reduce the nature and extent of the mismatch and mitigate the adverse impacts.

Full report