Young women experience higher levels of distress, HILDA data shows

HILDA study shows young women experience higher levels of psychological distress


Women in Australia are more likely to work when they are feeling unwell compared to men, the latest HILDA Survey has revealed. 

The survey, funded by the Department of Social Services, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) and managed by the Melbourne Institute, found that in the four weeks leading up to this year’s survey, almost one in five women reported working when they were physically unwell, while 16.8 per cent of employed men said they worked while feeling physically unwell. 

Roughly the same number of women reported working when they were mentally unwell, while just 11.1 per cent of men did the same. 

Those with a moderate or severe disability or in poor mental health were also much more likely to work when unwell. 

The 18th Annual Statistical Report of the HILDA Survey is a nationally representative longitudinal study of Australian households, following the lives of more than 17,000 Australians each year since 2001. 

Collecting information on many aspects of life in Australia, including household and family relationships, income and employment, and health and education, this year’s survey revealed some startling trends for women. Here, we look at a few of them. 

Working conditions

Men were less likely than women to be primarily working from home, the latest study found. In 2019, a mere 3.5 per cent per cent of people worked entirely from home, and 6.5 per cent worked at least 50 per cent of the time from home. In 2021, the figures shot up to 17.7 per cent and 24.3 respectively. 

The industries with the highest number of people mainly working from home are financial and insurance services, information media and telecommunications. Meanwhile, those working in retail, hospitality, education and arts were less likely to be working from home. 

The study also found a link between the number of employed parents and their use of formal child care. Unemployed mothers were less likely to seek formal child care. Unemployed fathers also lead to a decrease in using child care services, however the percentage reduced was much lower. 

The study concluded that the reason for these associations could either be that full-time employment could lead to the use of formal child care, or that having access to formal child care can be a precondition to seeking full time paid employment. 

The number of women in paid employment has also risen, especially in the group aged 65 to 69, where currently, one in four are employed.

Roughly 40 per cent of women aged between 18-64 are now employed full-time, while the proportion of men in that age group continue to be largely employed full time (70 per cent).

The gender pay gap is also slowly shrinking. In 2016, women earned just 78 per cent of what men earned. The latest study showed that now, women earn approximately 86 per cent of what men earn — still an extremely problematic figure. 

The average earnings made by a woman has also risen, though not to the heights of men. In 2021, the average female earning rose to 75 per cent of male average earnings, an increase from 2001 of 66 per cent. 


Fewer Australians are now deciding to walk down the aisle compared to a few decades ago. The percentage of women who were married in 2001 was 54.5 per cent. In 2021, that number dropped down to 48.2 per cent. 

More women are now opting to be in de facto relationships. Between 2001 to 2021, the percentage went from 8.9 per cent to 14.3 per cent. Similar figures were found with men. 

The largest cohort of Australians who have decided to waive marriage are those aged between 25 to 34. Generally, less people are partnering up in conventional, romantic relationships. 

Between 2002 to 2004, 31.1 per cent of men and 26.8 per cent of women self-identified as being in a romantic relationship. Between the 2014 to 2016 period, that figure dropped to 26.7 per cent of men and 23.7 per cent of women. 

When it comes to self-assessed relationship satisfaction, women aged 40 to 59 reported lower relationship satisfaction than their male counterparts. 

Last year’s HILDA study already charted a growing number of Australians drifting away from living with their intimate partner. Dr Esperanza Vera-Toscano, an economist and senior research fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, attributed the “qualitative shift in our understanding of family” to a progressive framework of thinking.

“We need get used to the fact that the traditional pathway of meeting someone, having a relationship that ends up in marriage and children, has changed,” she said. “There are other situations that need to be brought into the picture. It’s important we understand them.”

Loneliness and psychological distress

Those aged between 15-24 now encompass the highest portion of lonely individuals. In the period between 2001 and 2009, the greatest proportion of lonely people were those aged 65 and older. 

The study’s co-author Dr Ferdi Botha, said “There is a clear trend of younger people becoming lonelier and feeling more isolated as time goes on.” 

“If there aren’t actions taken or policies implemented to intervene, we may see loneliness and psychological distress increasing in the younger generations and this may lead to lower mental and physical wellbeing and other wider societal issues,” he said in a statement

“Loneliness increased in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for young people, there is a longer-term trend increase apparent. It may be that this is partly connected to growth in smart phones and social media use.” 

People in the youngest age cohort (15-24) also reported the highest average distress scores, with 42.3 per cent of them reporting they were psychologically distressed in 2021. Women aged 15 to 24 reported higher levels of distress than older women in the 35 to 54 and 65 and over age category, showing that the average psychological distress levels declined with age. 

Overall, women also reported higher levels of psychological distress. Between 2007 to 2021, the prevalence of psychological distress among women increased by roughly 63 per cent. In 2021, almost one in three women said they were in distress, compared to 22.7 per cent of men. The study measured participants’ psychological distress by asking them questions such as, “In the last four weeks, about how often did you feel tired out for no good reasons? Nervous? Hopeless? Depressed?”

Use of prescription drugs in Australia

More women are using strong painkillers than men, the latest study found. Almost thirty per cent of women reported using strong painkillers or pain-relievers with opioids in them, and 14 per cent reported using tranquillisers and/or sleeping pills. 

The strong painkillers may include Tramadol, Fentanyl, Oxycodone, morphine, codeine products such as Panadeine Forte. 

According to the study’s authors, most respondents were using the strong painkillers only infrequently, “…suggesting they are primarily used for temporary relief from pain, anxiety or sleep issues.” 

“However, it is crucial to acknowledge that these drugs have potential negative consequences, such as addiction, overdose and harmful interactions.” 


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