Report card on the wellbeing of Australians looks at what’s changed since the COVID pandemic began

The latest 2-yearly Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report on the welfare and wellbeing of Australians will be launched today by the Hon Mark Butler MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care, and the Hon Amanda Rishworth MP, Minister for Social Services.

Australia’s welfare 2023 uses a variety of data sources to look at temporary and lasting effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the way Australians live and work, including through accelerating existing social trends.

Levels of life satisfaction and psychological distress have improved in the Australian population since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – but have not returned to similar levels as before the pandemic.

Widespread working from home is likely to remain common in the years ahead and a long-term decline in the proportion of Australians undertaking voluntary work is continuing.

The report shows that there was a net total of 10,176 'excess deaths’ in Australia from the start of the pandemic (January 2020) to the end of March 2023 – this means there were over 10,000 more deaths than had been expected based on previous trends. COVID-19 accounted for a high proportion of the excess deaths.

‘Australia has come a long way since we released the previous edition of Australia’s welfare in September 2021,’ said AIHW Deputy Chief Executive Officer Matthew James.

‘At that time, many Australians were experiencing lockdowns, only 44.7% of people over the age of 16 were fully vaccinated against COVID and most children aged 12–15 weren’t yet eligible to receive COVID vaccines. Life is much more “normal” now for most Australians, however, some things are quite different to before the pandemic.’

The AIHW publishes Australia’s welfare every 2 years and Australia’s health in the alternate years.  

Australia’s welfare includes an in-brief summary; a collection of articles on selected topics, including contributions by academic experts; and topic summaries with key facts.

Media enquiries: [email protected]

 See below for summaries of: 

  • Life satisfaction, psychological distress and loneliness
  • Working from home and volunteering
  • COVID-19 mortality
  • Employment and cost of living  
  • Housing
  • Income support
  • Education
  • Disability
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) people.

 Life satisfaction, psychological distress and loneliness

Average life satisfaction tends to be fairly stable over time in Australia, but there were rapid changes during the pandemic.

The ABS General Social Survey shows average life satisfaction pre-pandemic was 7.5 out of 10 in 2019 (and 7.6 in 2014). This fell to 7.2 in 2020.

According to the ANUPoll, average life satisfaction was lower in August 2023 than it was before the pandemic and during late 2020 and early 2021. Average life satisfaction was 7 out of 10 in October 2019 (pre-pandemic), and fell to 6.5 in April 2020 and August 2021.

Average life satisfaction increased from August 2021, with a slight decline between January 2023 and August 2023 (from 6.8 to 6.6).

The ANUPoll shows the proportion of adults experiencing severe psychological distress increased at the start of the pandemic and has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. In April 2020, 10.6% of adults were experiencing severe psychological distress, a notable increase from 8.4% in February 2017. In August 2023, 12.9% of adults reported severe psychological distress, similar to the 12.5% rate reported in October 2021.

Average levels of psychological distress in adults aged 18–44 were higher from 2020–2023 when compared with the period prior to COVID (2017). The greatest increase was seen for those aged 18–24, from an average score of 12.8 to 14.6, between February 2017 and August 2023.

But for Australians aged 55 and over, there have been improvements in the average level of psychological distress overall since the start of the pandemic.

According to the ANUPoll, in April 2020, 46% of Australians reported feeling lonely at least some of the time – the highest level recorded during the pandemic. In the 3 years since then, levels of loneliness initially declined, then fluctuated slightly. As at August 2023, 37% of Australians reported having experienced loneliness at least some of the time in the week prior to the survey.

Working from home and volunteering

Prior to the pandemic (before 1 March 2020), 13% of people aged 18 and over with a job reported working from home most days according to the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey.

The proportion working from home all or most days more than doubled to around 26–31% between September 2020 and February 2021. By April 2022, 46% of people had worked from home at least once per week in the previous 4 weeks.

A long-term decline in the proportion of Australians undertaking voluntary work, which began before the pandemic, appears to be continuing.

The proportion of people aged 18 and over who reported undertaking unpaid voluntary work through an organisation in the past 12 months declined from 36% to 29% between 2010 and 2019 according to data from the ABS General Social Survey.

ANUPoll data shows in April 2023, 33% of people had undertaken voluntary work in the previous 12 months – which was lower than before the pandemic (36% in late 2019), but higher than in April 2022 (27%).

 COVID-19 mortality

Although COVID-19 is a health issue, it has also had massive effects on the general welfare and wellbeing of Australians.

Excess mortality shows the difference between the actual number of deaths and the expected number of deaths (based on previous trends) in a defined time period. Between the start of the pandemic and March 2023, there have been 10,176 excess deaths in Australia. While life expectancy fell in the United Kingdom and the United States in the first two years of the pandemic, as of 2021, this has not been the case in Australia.

In addition to excess mortality, ‘burden of disease’ methodology can be used to understand the impact of diseases and injuries on a population. Burden of disease combines the years of healthy life lost due to living with ill health (non-fatal burden) with the years of life lost due to dying prematurely (fatal burden).

In 2022, COVID-19 accounted for 151,400 years of healthy life lost and was the eighth leading cause of total disease burden in Australia.

Employment and cost of living

During the pandemic, Australia experienced the largest ever monthly fall in employment (a drop of 583,300 employed people aged 15 and over in April 2020) and the lowest employment rate observed in almost 20 years (at 69.5% for people aged 15–64 in May 2020). However, by November 2022, employment had recovered to record highs, and by October 2022 the unemployment rate was at its lowest in 50 years (3.4%).

In July 2023, labour market outcomes remained strong: the employment rate (as a proportion of the population aged 15–64) was 77.5%. The unemployment rate was 3.7% and the underemployment rate was 6.4%.

Consistent with the experience in other OECD countries, annual inflation accelerated in 2022. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) grew by 6.1% over the year to June quarter 2022, which at the time was the fastest increase since June 2001.

Annual growth in the CPI peaked at 7.8% over the year to the December quarter 2022 and has subsequently moderated to 6.0% over the year to the June quarter 2023. Inflation is forecast to fall, with the CPI forecast to grow by 3¼% over the year to the June quarter 2024, according to the 2023–24 Budget.

After adjusting for changes in the CPI, real average weekly earnings have been falling since May 2021. Real average weekly ordinary time earnings for full-time employees fell by 4.1% over the year to November 2022 and by 2.0% over the year to March 2023.

The Wage Price Index (WPI) has not kept pace with inflation and as a result the real value of the WPI has been falling in annual terms since the June quarter 2021. Over the year to the June quarter 2023, the real value of the WPI fell by 2.3%.

In August 2023, 20.2% of Australians reported finding it ‘difficult’ and 10.1% ‘very difficult’ to live on their present income – above levels reported before and during the pandemic (18.5% ‘difficult’ and 8.2% ‘very difficult’ in February 2020; 12.6% ‘difficult’ and 4.7 ‘very difficult’ in November 2020). This is largely related to the very rapid increase in prices observed in recent years.


Over the 12 months to June 2023, median advertised rents increased by 11.5% in capital city areas, according to data from CoreLogic. Rents paid by existing and new tenants are also important to understand housing affordability. Across Australia, rents paid increased by 2.5% in the June quarter of 2023 and 6.7% annually. This was the largest annual increase since 2009.

While home ownership rates have remained at around 67–70% since the early 1970s, the rates have varied markedly for different age groups over time.

Between 1971 and 2021, home ownership rates fell from 50% to 36% for 25–29-year-olds, from 64% to 50% for 30–34-year-olds and from 80% to 72% for 50–54-year-olds.

In 2021–22, around 815,500 Australians lived in social housing (67% in public housing, 27% in community housing, 6% in state-owned and managed Indigenous housing) in over 442,700 dwellings. Social housing households represent a decreasing share of total Australian households – from 4.7% in 2008 to 4.1% in 2022.

Income support

Over the past 2 decades, the proportion of the Australian population aged 16 and over receiving income support payments (such as unemployment, disability, parenting and age-related payments) has been falling, from a high of around 29% (between June 2001 and 2003) to 24% in June 2019, the lowest level in 20 years.

Reliance on income support increased steeply in the early part of the pandemic but returned to pre-pandemic levels by June 2022. The increases were mostly driven by unemployment payments – with the number of recipients doubling from 886,200 to 1.6 million between March and June 2020. By March 2023, there were 76,500 fewer people receiving unemployment payments than in March 2020.

The proportion of Australians aged 16 and over receiving income support was similar in the first half of 2023 to before the pandemic (24% in June 2019 and March 2023).


The proportion of Australians aged 15–74 with a non-school qualification – such as a university degree, certificate or diploma – increased from 56% to 63% between 2013 and 2022.

A research paper from the Life Course Centre published as part of Australia’s welfare 2023 confirms that Australians from the most advantaged backgrounds are more likely to enrol at university. However, the education levels of a person’s parents are a stronger influence than parental income or place of residence on whether a person enrols in university.


Around 4.4 million Australians (18% of the population) had some form of disability in 2018. At 31 March 2023, there were around 769,300 people receiving the Disability Support Pension; 345,000 receiving other income support payments because of limited work capacity. At 31 December 2022, there were 573,000 active National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants with approved plans; and 273,600 participants in the Disability Employment Services (DES).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) people 

As of 30 June 2021, there were an estimated 984,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) people.

Four in 10 (42%) First Nations households were homeowners (with or without a mortgage) in 2021, up from 33% in 2001. More than half (56%) of First Nations households rented. The proportion of First Nations people living in overcrowded housing fell between 2001 and 2021 from 31% to 19%. Improvements have been made in educational attainment for First Nations people in recent years. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of First Nations students enrolled in university doubled, from 11,800 to 24,000 and Year 12 or equivalent attainment increased for those aged 20–24 (from 52% to 68%). 

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