Disability and mental health

Te Taunaki | Public Service Census 2021 collected information on disabled peoples’ experiences of working in the Public Service. This gives us important information and insights that haven’t previously been available. Having this information is a great first step in understanding the barriers and opportunities experienced by disabled people in the Public Service, and to inform actions that will progress the inclusion and equity kaupapa.

The questions used in the survey (the Washington Group Short Set of Questions) are an internationally valid and reliable way of collecting disability information, but they also have limitations. They don’t capture the prevalence of disability, and many disabilities are not captured. We included an additional question on whether public servants experienced any mental health conditions lasting six months or more. We’ll continue to work with our disabled communities and Public Service agencies to improve the way we collect and report on disability data.

Key insights from the disability and mental health data collected in Te Taunaki were:

  • Work satisfaction (69% overall) was lower for public servants who reported a functional limitation (57%) or mental health condition (58%), and even lower for those who reported both (48%). This mirrors a 2018 Stats NZ report on disability that noted disabled people tended to have lower job satisfaction than non-disabled.
  • Tenure in role, agency and Public Service was generally longer for those who reported a functional limitation than other public servants. This mirrors another finding from the 2018 Stats NZ report that disabled people tended to have longer job tenure than non-disabled’. However, public servants who reported a mental health condition generally had a shorter tenure than other public servants. These differences may be partly explained by age differences. Those reporting a functional limitation tend to be older than other public servants, while those reporting a mental health condition tend to be younger than other public servants.
  • Trust in work colleagues “to do what is right” (78% overall) was lower for those who reported a functional limitation (68%) or mental health condition (71%), and lower again for those reporting both (59%). This mirrors another finding from the 2018 Stats NZ report that disabled people reported lower levels of trust in other people and in public institutions.
  • The median pay band of public servants ($75,000–$79,999 overall) is slightly lower for those who reported a functional limitation or mental health condition ($70,000–$74,999 for both groups) and lower again for those reporting both ($65,000–$69,999). The 2018 Stats NZ report found that disabled people received a median personal income of less than half that of non-disabled people in the same age group.
  • The three most common functional limitations identified in the survey were in:
    • seeing
    • remembering or concentrating
    • walking or climbing stairs.

Of those completing the survey, 5.5% reported a functional limitation, and 17.9% reported a mental health condition. These results do not reflect prevalence in the workforce due to the limitations of the questions.

  • On disability, the survey asked about difficulty in one or more of six specified activities: seeing (even with glasses), hearing (even with hearing aids), walking or climbing stairs, remembering or concentrating, self-care, and communicating.1 These six activities are those that are most often found to limit an individual’s participation in everyday life, but they don’t capture all disabilities. This can be seen in the results from the 2013 Stats NZ Disability Survey which was designed to measure prevalence. It estimated the disability rate to be 16% for the Public Service workforce. This was lower than for the overall workforce, although the difference was not statistically significant.
  • On mental health, the survey asked: “Do you experience any mental health conditions that have lasted for six months or more?” Respondents may have understood this in different ways, whether in terms of severity, persistence, or timing. The New Zealand Health Survey provides more in-depth information on mental health.

We use the ‘social model’ of disability and promote the participation and leadership of disabled people in society, with the same access to opportunities as non-disabled people. For more information, see Guidance for policy makers on the website of the Office for Disability Issues.

For more data, see the Census Drilldown data cubes.  


[1] For each of the activities, public servants were asked to rate their level of difficulty on a four-point scale: ‘no difficulty’, ‘some difficulty’, ‘a lot of difficulty’ or ‘cannot do at all’. The same threshold used by Stats NZ (either ‘a lot of difficulty’ or ‘cannot do at all’) was used to measure functional limitation, disability, health condition or impairment.

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