Over-qualified immigrants at risk of poorer mental health

Jul 28, 2011

Over-qualified immigrants at risk of poorer mental healthMany recent immigrants end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified, putting them at risk of poorer mental health within a short period of time, according to a recent study from the Institute for Work & Health. The study explored just how common over-qualification is among new immigrants to Canada, and how it affects their general and mental health. The study was published last December in Ethnicity & Health (Vol. 15, No. 6, pp. 601-619).

These workers, who comprise half of recent immigrants in the workforce, are more likely to report declines in their mental health than immigrants who are in jobs suited to their education, experience and expectations. However, employers can take steps to protect their mental health.

Poor mental health in any worker, immigrant or otherwise, can lead to a number of consequences, including poor morale, reduced productivity, absenteeism, injuries, higher rates of short- and long-term disability, and rapid turnover.

In the context of the study, immigrants were considered over-qualified if the skills required in their current job in Canada were lower than

  • their level of education
  • the skills required in their previous job before arriving in Canada, or
  • their expected job when they decided to immigrate.

Based on this definition, the study found that about

  • 52% of these immigrants were over-qualified based on education
  • 44% based on experience
  • 43% based on expectations.

“Many of us have heard accounts of engineers or physicians immigrating to Canada only to find jobs driving taxis,” says IWH research associate Cynthia Chen, the study’s lead author. “In this research, we examined the impact of that kind of over-qualification on immigrants’ well-being.”

Chen and her colleagues analyzed data from the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada (LSIC), administered by Statistics Canada. The sample included 2,685 employed immigrants who had worked before coming to Canada and were in good health upon their arrival. They were interviewed three times during their first four years, and were asked questions about their general and mental health. One of the questions asked if they had experienced any emotional problems such as “persistent feelings of sadness, depression or loneliness” in the previous 12 months.

Immigrants over-qualified in any of the three ways reported declines in their mental health but not general health. This decline could be traced to their general dissatisfaction with their job situation.

“Canadian immigration policy selects highly skilled, healthy immigrants to be admitted into this country,” Chen says. “Without proper recognition and use of their foreign educational credentials and work experiences, it is unlikely that new immigrants will achieve their potential in the Canadian labour market.”

She points out that immigrants receive very little information when applying to come to Canada about the types of work they are likely to end up in and how long they may remain in jobs for which they are over-qualified.

“Immigrants should be made more aware of these challenges when they apply to move to Canada,” Chen says, “because this study shows that unmet job expectations increase the risk of a decline in mental well-being over a relatively short time.”

Contributing factors to poor mental health

Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing with Mood Problems in the Workplace, a self-care manual written by scientist-practitioners with expertise in workplace mental health and addiction-related issues, identifies a number of additional factors with potential for increasing immigrant workers’ risk of depression or other mental health disorders:

  • lack of mental health literacy. Immigrant workers may lack knowledge about the prevalence, signs and treatments for mental health disorders or how to access appropriate assessment and care in Canada.
  • stigma. The negative judgment associated with having a mental health disorder is particularly pronounced in some cultures, preventing impacted individuals or caregivers from seeking help.
  • language or cultural barriers. Mental health resources need to be available in ways that are sensitive to the educational, ethnic and religious beliefs of diverse populations. This includes availability of translation services.
  • lack of supports: Immigrant workers are often relegated to positions that do not have the benefits and supports for workplace psychological health and safety afforded to other employees.
  • discrimination. Immigrant workers are at greater risk of harassment, bullying and other forms of discrimination by employers, co-workers, customers, and the public.
  • isolation. Immigrant workers may be working in jobs far away from their immediate or extended family, friends and native culture.

Supporting immigrant workers’ mental health

Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing with Mood Problems in the Workplace offers these suggestions for protecting and promoting the mental health of immigrant workers:

  • ensure immigrant workers are aware they have the same rights and protections afforded to native Canadian workers
  • provide health and mental health information and educational materials in the main languages of your employees (the manual is available in French and English’ a  companion self-care guide, the Antidepressant Skills Workbook, is available in English, French, Punjabi and both simplified and traditional Chinese)
  • create a respectful workplace, i.e., where there is an appreciation of diversity of race, language, culture and beliefs, and zero tolerance for discrimination or bullying.
  • provide immigrant workers with appropriate orientation to their job requirements and benefits, and offer regular feedback and supervision that allows for early identification of any personal or job-related signs of mental health issues.
  • celebrate the cultural and ethnic diversity of your workforce. This can include information in company newsletters, staff meetings or “lunch and learn” opportunities that acknowledge and support the cuisine, practices and contributions of visible minorities in your workplace.

The manual was developed by BC Mental Health & Addiction Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), British Columbia, Canada in partnership with the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University.

Additional options include the following:

  • set up a buddy or peer support system, linking newly immigrant workers with established immigrant workers
  • check with local immigrant resource services to see if they offer related services or expertise you could draw on
  • assess literacy levels of all your immigrant workers and ensure your orientation training accommodates existing literacy levels
  • provide literacy training, either onsite or through community resources, as needed
  • assess immigrant workers’ skill levels, and help them identify opportunities in the organization to put existing and untapped skills to better use, or improve their advancement opportunities.

How we can help

Health & Safety Ontario and the four organizations comprising it offer related information, tools and resources, such as