Over-qualified immigrants at risk of poorer mental health

Many recent immigrants end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified, putting them at risk of poorer mental health within a relatively short period of time, according to a recent study from the Institute for Work & Health.

Published: May 19, 2011

Recent immigrants working in jobs for which they are over-qualified are more likely to report declines in their mental health than immigrants who are in jobs suited to their education, experience and expectations. This is a concern, given that about half of recent immigrants who are working end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified.

This is the finding of a recent study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) that 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).

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 lead author of the study. 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 employed immigrants who had worked before coming to Canada and were in good health upon their arrival. They were interviewed three times during the four years after they first arrived and were asked questions about their general and mental health. One of the questions asked if they experienced any emotional problems such as “persistent feelings of sadness, depression or loneliness” in the previous 12 months. A total of 2,685 immigrants were included in the sample.

Immigrants were considered over-qualified if the skills required in their current job in Canada were lower than their level of education, or lower than the skills required in their previous job before arrival in Canada or expected job when they decided to immigrate. The study found that about 52 per cent of these immigrants were over-qualified based on their education levels, 44 per cent based on their experience and 43 per cent based on their expectations.

Declines in mental health reported

Moreover, immigrants who were over-qualified in any of these three ways reported declines in their mental health over the four-year period (although not in their general health), and 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.