With workplaces forced into lockdown to battle COVID-19 and Australians required to work from home, unaddressed hearing loss is emerging as a barrier to online workforce participation and productivity.1,2,3
One in three Australians over the age of 50 live with hearing loss.2,4 This number increases to one in two from the age of 60.2,4 If left untreated, hearing loss can lead to social isolation, fatigue, depression and anxiety.1,5 It’s also been linked to an increased risk of dementia and early retirement.1,3,4
Consumer health advocates are concerned about potential spikes in hearing-linked anxiety, depression and social isolation as video conferencing becomes the “new normal”. They’re urging people struggling in this new work environment to be pro-active and check their hearing.
· 3.95 million Australians experience some degree of hearing loss2
· Online work environments pose a challenge to those with hearing loss1
· Hearing loss is known to amplify potential social isolation and mental health issues1,3,5
· Australia leads the world in tele-audiology, testing software and self-fit hearing aids
· Consumer health advocates are urging Australians who are struggling to check their hearing
Melbourne-based tele-audiologist and Swinburne University digital health scientist Dr Sophie Brice says with more Australians working from home, it’s becoming increasingly important to identify and address undiagnosed hearing loss.
Australians have quickly embraced the concept of tele-health, using the phone and internet to access mainstream and mental health services. Hearing services are no different, with pioneering Australian tele-audiology provider Blamey Saunders Hears first offering online hearing services in 2008.
Dr Paula Swatman, an academic and Chair of the Swinburne University Human Research Ethics Committee, has just been appointed to the Tasmanian COVID 19 Consumer Reference Group. It’s one of several State-based groups proactively providing feedback to government and public health officials about what is worrying Australians at this challenging time.
“Poor hearing, already a major contributor to poorer mental health outcomes, is emerging as a potential new barrier as many Australians move to work primarily online,” Dr Swatman said.
Aware of the well documented links between unaddressed hearing loss, increased social isolation and adverse mental health issues, Dr Swatman is advocating for the hearing needs of isolated Australians – be they working from home, keeping up with local community responsibilities or simply remaining connected as they are physically separated from friends and family.
She’s all too familiar with the communication challenges facing Australians with hearing loss working from home. Dr Swatman lives with early-onset hearing loss and currently manages her hearing needs remotely, using tele-audiology.
“Phone and video conferencing calls with multiple participants can be challenging to follow at the best of times, even for those with good hearing,” she said.
“I’m now constantly in online meetings and, like many workplaces, find myself switching between multiple video-conferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype. Without my hearing aids, the course of my professional and personal life would be very different,” Dr Swatman said.
Dr Brice agrees. While her research at Swinburne University is focused on the emergence of self-fitting hearing aids and the uptake of tele-audiology to address the burden of hearing loss, Dr Brice also offers phone support to Australians managing their hearing loss remotely through Blamey Saunders Hears.
“As we embrace social distancing and remote working, we need to establish home and work environments that enable all Australians to stay connected – and for some that may mean addressing undiagnosed hearing loss,” she said.
“Anyone with internet access can use tele-audiology services,” Dr Brice said. “Our free, clinically validated online hearing test evaluates how well people hear and understand speech. We then use these results to individually pre-program individuals’ hearing aids, which are mailed to them. They can then further personalise their devices via an app on their smartphone – or we can make adjustments for them remotely.”
Dr Brice says good hearing is important to enable people to stay productive at work, engaged with family and remain socially connected – particularly at this difficult time.
The Blamey Saunders Hears’ online hearing test can be accessed at: www.blameysaunders.com.au.