Study finds newcomers particularly vulnerable to stress and illness associated with joblessness

Toronto Star
August 04, 2009

Nicholas Keung

International human resources manager Denny George had never been unemployed until after he immigrated to Canada in late 2005. His life took a 180-degree turn.

Originally from Mumbai, India, George had to learn to be frugal, worried about the $1,500 monthly mortgage payment on his new home in Mississauga and was challenged by his 7-year-old son about why he and his wife gave up a comfortable life in Dubai for Canada.

“It’s a serious lifestyle change,” said George, 42, who earned his MBA from the reputable Xavier Institute. “It challenges your self-esteem, your self-worth. It is psychosomatic, affecting your digestion, eating habits and confidence.”

According to a new Canadian study to be published in the Ethnicity and Health journal, underemployment and unemployment can be particularly detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of highly educated, skilled immigrants.

The effects are compounded by the stress of the migration and the settlement process, when immigrants are struggling to adjust in a new culture and in some cases are separated from their families who remain at home waiting to be sponsored.

“They have little social support from family members and lack strong social networks in Canada to help them overcome the effects of their employment circumstances,” said University of Toronto health geographer Kathi Wilson, a co-author of the study.

“Such periods of unemployment among immigrants are most likely much longer than among the non-immigrant population, thereby contributing to longer-term health problems.”

Based on in-depth surveys of clients at the Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre in Mississauga, the qualitative study found “the loss of income, employment-related skills and social status” led to stress, depression, unhappiness, worry, tension, irritation and frustration.

Employment is key in the settlement process because it often defines an individual’s identity and social status – as the breadwinner of the family and a contributing member of the society, the study said.

“Especially relevant to skilled immigrants in Canada is the sense of identity derived from one’s status as a professional,” wrote Wilson, who co-authored the report with McMaster University researcher Asanin Dean.

Wilson said those things that help define a person’s identity had been compromised or lost as a result of their employment circumstances. As a consequence of this loss, mental health is impacted in a negative way.”

The survey’s 16 male and six female participants – with business, engineering and computer technology backgrounds from nine countries – had been in Canada for less than three years. Twelve had been unemployed since their arrival, while 10 had held a “survival job.”

Those employed in survival jobs also reported physical pain and injuries because coming from a white-collar background, they were not accustomed to manual labour and other physically strenuous conditions.

“I feel very stressed because there is a lot of physical work (in the factory),” a female mechanical engineer told researchers.

“Physically I feel strained sometimes because almost eight or nine hours you are standing. So like pain, back pain, that kind of pain. I was not used to this.”

Graphic designer Carlos Torres, who didn’t participate in the study but is a client at Dixie Bloor, has been unemployed since he arrived here with his wife and two daughters 15 months ago. The 30-year-old from Bogota, Colombia, has attended employment programs and sent out more than 50 resumés, without a response.

“You get to the point when you start worrying about ending up washing dishes and working in a factory, feeling worthless,” said Torres, whose family now relies on social assistance.

“My girls want to have iPods for Christmas, but we can’t afford it and have to tell them that we cannot have Christmas like we had before.”

Lynn Petrushchak, Dixie Bloor’s executive director, said settlement agencies like hers try hard to set clients on the right path for employment but don’t have the capacity to offer direct counselling on mental health.

Some mainstream health organizations are still catching up on providing culturally and linguistically sensitive counselling services, she pointed out, and may lack the understanding that settlement agencies have of the unique circumstances facing immigrants.

Human resources manager George was fortunate that it only took him about a year to land a job in his profession. He found work at Dixie Bloor through an executive networking group called HAPPEN in Mississauga.

“Newcomers have to get over their inhibition and take an extra step,” George said.

By engaging with people in the community, in churches and other social settings, they will “open the door for opportunities that they have never thought

Reference: Toronto Star