Immigrant and Refugee Underemployment a Strong Contributor to Mental Illness

Immigrant and Refugee Underemployment a Strong Contributor to Mental Illness

I met Ahmet (name changed) at university in Toronto during the first year of undergraduate in psychology. Ahmet used to be an academic at a public university in Istanbul while he was doing his PhD. I was a mental health nurse working at one of the best hospitals in Europe.

Our backgrounds and our motives for coming to Canada were very different. Ahmet came to Canada as a refugee escaping from political persecution. I came to Canada as an immigrant to join my Canadian husband with the desire to build a life with him. However, Ahmet and I had something in common: we both were prevented from using our professional skills in our new country.

Like many other immigrants and refugees, we invested money, time, and passion in our training. We accumulated invaluable knowledge through experience. However, these values are not always considered relevant or applicable in the host country. Our credentials are not recognized and our professional experience gets ignored.

Many newcomers end up underemployed, working jobs which they are overqualified for, or worse, becoming unemployed. This situation not only has a socioeconomic cost but also a psychological one.

The difficulties that immigrants and refugees experience in finding jobs that fit their professional skills have been associated with symptoms of depression, stress, lower levels of self-esteem, and other physical and mental problems.

A 2023 Canadian study suggests that underemployment in immigrants and refugees impacts their ability to socially integrate in their host country, having consequences for their well-being and mental health. A prospective Swedish cohort also added that overqualified immigrants and refugees have a greater risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular, musculoskeletal or psychiatric disease than those working in jobs that match their academic education.

Underemployment is not an exclusive problem of immigrants and refugees, but the statistics suggest that underemployment is more frequent in this population group than in non-immigrants. Other pressing issues for newcomers include racism and discrimination, linguistic limitations, and scarcity of professional networks.

Ahmet recalls feeling stripped of all his previous skills, knowledge and experience when he arrived in Canada – nothing he had done before seemed to count. This left him highly disappointed, disheartened, and feeling incompetent. He adds, “I used to lead a life within my own means and even supported my family members and friends both financially and psychologically when I was in Turkey. However, the political persecution I suffered there and the underemployment I experienced in Canada caused me to seek financial and psychological support from my friends and family members. This undermined my positive beliefs about my self-perception to some extent. I ended up feeling psychologically overwhelmed and incapacitated for a while.”

Ahmet is not the only one to feel like this. A qualitative study in Norway suggests that the career-barriers that immigrants and refugees encounter in their host country reduce their sense of self-efficacy, leaving them with feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and inferiority.

Particularly vulnerable to underemployment and its negative effects are women immigrants and refugees, racialized immigrants and refugees, and those who experience pre-migration trauma.

Donna Alexander, a social worker and mental health clinician at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, speaks on her experience working with racialized immigrants in Canada. Donna notes that many of them come from mostly homogenous societies. This may be the first time they encounter racism in their search for employment. They feel overwhelmed by the reality of trying to make a living to meet basic expenses while navigating the recertification process without cultural privilege and little social support.

She adds that, for those who gave up prestigious positions to be in Canada, the quest often leads to acute stress, hopelessness, and subsequent anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

A 2022 study found that overqualification was 10% more likely in racialized immigrants than in non-racialized immigrants. Furthermore, immigrant women with higher education are more likely to be underemployed than their Canadian-born counterparts. And those who are married or have children are less likely to hold a full-time position when compared with Canadian-born women.

For those who have experienced pre-migration trauma and persecution based on factors such as race, religion, or political views, experiencing post-migration discrimination in the workplace can lead to feelings of re-traumatization.

Ahmet’s experience reflects this: “Having had to leave Turkey due to the high risks of being imprisoned and/or losing my life, I was traumatized. Facing the challenge of finding an appropriate work that aligns well with my qualifications and experience in Canada exacerbated my mental status to some extent, for sure, both in terms of my self-confidence and financial freedom. That’s why being discriminated against while seeking a Ph.D. opportunity and an accompanying TA position at a university or finding an ESL instructor position at one of the colleges or language schools here in Toronto caused me to experience a kind of traumatization in a different form here in Canada.”

This is a complex problem and the solution requires different levels of action. At a political level, the Government of Ontario presented Bill 149 in 2023, which seeks to prohibit employers from requiring Canadian experience in job offers. While this bill prohibits overt discrimination, it doesn’t necessarily address more subtle forms.

Donna comments on the requirement of Canadian experience, stating that it has long been a barrier to hiring qualified employees, while also reflecting ethnocentrism and the exploitation of immigrants and refugees. She advocates for increasing awareness of the challenges faced by immigrants in the job market, and building better recertification processes which have a culturally safe and affirming mental health component.

Research has highlighted the psychological harms of underemployment and unemployment for immigrants and refugees. We need governmental and mental health support to help newcomers in their search for a fair job.

-Maria Auxiliadora Sanchez Ledesma, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature: 0thefool at Pixabay, Creative Commons
First: Geralt
at Pixabay, Creative Commons
Second: Vic. Desarrolo Humano Integral e Innovacion at Flickr, Creative Commons