Workplace stress and anxiety is on the rise at CSIRO, with a new report revealing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on science workers at Australia’s premier research organisation.
Released by the union representing CSIRO workers, the National Workplace Health, Safety and Wellbeing Report charts the course of the pandemic’s second year – including the period covering extended lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra – and involved more than 1,300 participants.
“CSIRO employees are dedicated to their work and strongly believe in the organisation but as we near the end of the year and the second anniversary of the beginning on the pandemic, this report finds that the resilience of CSIRO staff, while still strong, has been tested,” said Acting Staff Association Secretary Susan Tonks.
CSIRO’s own staff survey, conducted in March 2021, already found that nearly half (42 per cent) of respondents reported often feeling anxious in the previous month; with excessive workloads, project delivery and unrealistic deadlines nominated as key stressors.
However, when asked in a Staff Association survey later in October, more than 80 per cent of respondents reported feeling anxious at work during the preceding three months (during the Delta outbreak) with more than a third citing often instances of anxiety.
“CSIRO employees are deeply committed to the work they do and while a large majority consider the organisation a safe place to work, a growing number of staff describe their working life as increasingly stressful,” Ms Tonks said.
When asked to name the key drivers of workplace stress, the five most common responses included; feeling disconnected (51 per cent), excessive workloads (45 per cent), project delivery (42 per cent), job insecurity (23 per cent) and working remotely (21 per cent).
More than a third (34 per cent) of respondents reported an increase in workload due to extended working from home, whereas 42 per cent reported little to no impact.
“Working from home makes me feel like I need to be accessible all day,” said one report participant.
Nearly half (49 per cent) of respondents reported a decline in mental health and wellbeing from April 2021 levels.
When asked whether staff felt supported by CSIRO and connected to colleagues, 83 per cent of respondents agreed (to some extent) with the statement. However, 53 per cent only felt well supported under the circumstances. 13 per cent reported feeling disconnected and in need of more support.
“In general, staff still feel supported by CSIRO and connected to colleagues. But, crucially, for a majority that’s only a pass mark given the circumstances of the pandemic. In other words, not a ringing endorsement,” Ms Tonks said.
During the second half of 2021, nearly 60 per cent of respondents reported working from home for three consecutive weeks or more due to public health measures to contain COVID-19.
“We estimate that up to two thirds of staff continue to work from home consistently and have done so for an extended period this year,” Ms Tonks said.
“That seems to have had a split impact on workloads; with similar numbers of staff either reporting little to no effect while for others the burden has increased and the boundaries between home and work have blurred significantly.”
21 per cent of respondents want to continue working from home most of the time. 51 per cent of participants will seek hybrid or split arrangements, while 19 per cent are keen to return to the workplace. Only 5 per cent feel worried that they will face pressure to return.
“Working from home seems here to stay, with a majority of CSIRO staff interested in pursuing hybrid or blended arrangements that incorporate some onsite work,” Ms Tonks said.
“However, those who have returned to workplaces are reporting increased pressure to fulfil the corporate citizenship and volunteer roles that keep sites functioning.”
Australian workplace health and safety laws mandate a role for staff in the form of the Health and Safety Representative (HSR). These are employees, democratically elected by colleagues, to independently represent staff and help keep workplaces safe.
Of those staff surveyed, nearly half (46 per cent) where unsure or did not know the identity of their local HSR. More than half of participants (55 per cent) did not know or were unsure about the difference between the roles and responsibilities of the independent HSR and that of CSIRO’s own in-house health and safety staff.
“HSRs have a positive and significant role to play in providing staff consultation around workplace health and safety issues, which may prove to be increasing importance as the CSIRO workforce seeks to reconnect with each other following the fragmentation caused by the pandemic,” Ms Tonks said.
The report makes five key recommendations: