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Supporting immigrants’ mental health

Employers can take the lead in addressing systemic labour market barriers
mental health
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By Yilmaz Dinc

Today is World Mental Health Day, when global efforts are made to raise awareness about mental health issues in all areas of life. Our workplaces have a major impact on our mental wellbeing, and for immigrants who may be in Canada without a strong social support system, experiences at work can hold even greater sway.

When they start out, newcomers to Canada actually have a mental health advantage over people born here, according to a 2011 report from Statistics Canada. But these happier, healthier times don’t last.

The longer immigrants reside in Canada, the more likely they come to report depression and mood disorders, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada in a 2016 report. With a lack of professional networks, along with credential-related barriers, newcomers often take on work far below their skill level.

These experiences in the job market can exacerbate the risk of decreased mental wellbeing, but to what extent?

The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) recently conducted a poll of nearly 100 professionals in the GTA to help answer this question. And the results are stark: 74 per cent of both recent and longer-term immigrants polled reported experiencing “high levels of stress” during their job search. Immigrant women were more likely (77 per cent) to report this than immigrant men (68 per cent).

Unfortunately, stress does not end once a job is secured for immigrants. Two-fifths (41 per cent) of those polled experienced “high levels of stress” when employed. It is much worse for women, who were more than twice as likely to experience stress because of their work (52 per cent), compared to immigrant men (20 per cent).

Immigrant women face greater barriers in the job market overall. Across Canada, the unemployment rate for university-educated, working-age, newcomer women stood at 12 per cent last year. Though that figure has seen a decline in recent years, it is still a startling contrast with the unemployment rate for university-educated, working-age men born in Canada, with the same level of qualifications: 3.2 per cent.

What can be done to help? Employers can take a lead in addressing the systemic labour market barriers that cause immigrants to suffer particular strain. Research by the Institute for Work and Health released in 2019 makes clear that working conditions, such as job security, autonomy and social support, have a significant effect on mental health.

Since mental health problems can decrease employee productivity, organizations that create a positive work environment stand to increase employees’ productivity and, ultimately, their earnings.

When it comes to enhancing the job market experience of immigrants, employers can work with other stakeholders, such as settlement and employment agencies, several ways:

Extend job search support to newcomers: The job search process is challenging for newcomers, as they usually don’t have a strong professional network in Canada. Soft skills and networking workshops and occupation-specific mentoring can reduce the stress and isolation of looking for employment. Employers can engage in these interventions by having employees share their experiences with newcomers at workshops and trainings, or by acting as mentors. 

Acknowledge the value of international education and work experience: Employers often discount the value of education and work experience obtained outside of Canada. This puts newcomers in a precarious position, and drives many into jobs well below their previous positions. This means they contribute less to the broader economy, plus earning less and wasting their talent takes a toll on their mental health. 

Bridge the gender gaps: Immigrant women require more targeted support in the job market as they face additional challenges (such as a disproportionate share of childcare duties). Offering workplace flexibility is a proven method to leverage female participation in the workforce.

Create a culture of inclusion through inclusive leadership: The more newcomers and immigrants feel welcomed and valued with their organization, the greater their sense of belonging and positive well-being. Inclusive leadership training helps employers build a welcoming company culture and an organization that values and invests in a diverse workforce.

Train and raise awareness of people’s managers: Managers who supervise employees have a big influence on their well-being at work. They should ensure employees have reasonable workloads and a good work-life balance, while taking action to address any workplace stigma against potential mental health challenges.

Immigrants play a vital role in our communities and our economy, and we can all do our part to help them breathe a little easier.

Yilmaz E. Dinc is the research and partnerships specialist at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). For more information, visit www.triec.ca.

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