Education, type of work lessen pandemic job loss in youths with rheumatic diseases

Follow-up study finds employment dropped by 72 per cent when all factors are taken into account

Published: June 1, 2021

Young adults with rheumatic diseases—about one in 1,000 young people—have generally faced greater challenges in the job market than their healthy peers. At the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), a research team led by Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha was already conducting a series of surveys about the entry of young adults with rheumatic illness into the labour force. When the pandemic arrived in Canada, the team decided to look at the effects of COVID-19 on the employment of this group to see whether they were harder hit.

Between the first survey, conducted in the months before emergency measures were introduced across Canada in March 2020, and the second survey conducted nine months later, Jetha’s team found the percentage of study participants working who were fell from 86 per cent to 71 per cent.

These numbers contain a “good news, bad news” story, says Jetha. That drop in employment appears no worse than the work experiences of other young adults in Canada during the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey data from April 2020, while nine percent of middle-aged adults reported job loss due to the pandemic, 22 per cent of younger adults did so.

However, the change in employment rates seen in the study could have been affected by the characteristics of the study sample. The sample (133 young adults with rheumatic disease who completed the first survey and 110 who did the second) was well represented by individuals with higher education, with a permanent job contract, and whose work involved more mental demands (which may allow for work to be done remotely). When the research team controlled for those factors, along with other personal factors (e.g. marital status, child care responsibilities), health factors (e.g. depression, pain levels, frequency of disease flares) and work factors (e.g. physical demands, job tenure and job control), the picture was worse. The likelihood of employment following the pandemic was reduced by 72 per cent when compared to the period prior to the pandemic.

The study confirms that, as has been found in the general population, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment differed according to the type of work and education levels held by young people with rheumatic diseases. Young adults with rheumatic illness who had a post-secondary education were seven times more likely to be working during the first months of the pandemic than those with less schooling. Those whose jobs had higher mental demands were 40 to 56 per cent more likely to have remained working after the onset of the pandemic.

The follow-up survey also showed that, among the participating young adults with rheumatic illness, the pandemic:

  • affected their access to health care (83 per cent) and treatment of their rheumatic disease (54 per cent);
  • affected their working conditions (92 per cent); and
  • changed their perceptions of workplace health and safety (74 per cent).

While the drop in employment may not seem drastic, this is a group of workers who already face challenges entering and advancing in the working world, and the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to leave a lasting socioeconomic mark, says Jetha. We need to keep a careful watch for the long-term adverse implications of the pandemic on the more vulnerable among this group of people, especially those whose employment was disrupted. We also need to consider strategies to ensure that those working in lower quality jobs are protected from future external shocks to the labour market.

The study has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Arthritis Care & Research (doi:10.1002/acr.24617)