NEWS

Asian Americans Were Especially Affected by COVID-19 Job Loss, Study Suggests

Asian woman holds a box of her things after getting laid off

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Key Takeaways

  • Negative job developments during the COVID-19 pandemic were linked to higher psychological distress.
  • Asians were most severely impacted, followed by Black Americans, but only Asians suffered significantly more mental health distress with pay cuts, unlike other demographics.
  • Such findings demonstrate the need for public health initiatives to be grounded in racial justice to ensure equitable outcomes regarding mental health.

A recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that Asian Americans were the most severely impacted by psychological distress following job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study was conducted with 1510 workers across the country and found that the greatest psychological distress was associated with permanent job loss, in comparison to those who experienced no change in employment.

Given the ongoing impact of white supremacy on the mental health of BIPOC communities even before the pandemic, these heightened challenges deserve greater attention so that the individuals affected might receive more equitable mental health services.

Understanding the Research

This research study sample included a total of 1510 participants, who were primarily middle-aged, with roughly equal distribution among men and women, and most of whom were either married or living with a partner.

The participants were predominantly white, at 60%, with 19% of Hispanic background, 13% Black Americans, and 7% of various Asian racial groups. Whites and Asian Americans had relatively higher household income, with 30% and nearly 40% earning over $99,999 annually, respectively.

At a rate of 57%, most study participants did not experience a change in employment status during the pandemic, while the prevalence of negative job changes was 43%, including 19.13% dealing with pay cuts, 10.53% facing temporary unemployment, and 13.69% confronting permanent job loss, of which, most of these participants were Hispanic and Black Americans.

Researchers found that Asian and Black Americans experienced the highest levels of psychological distress, as associated with permanent job loss, while white and Asian Americans had the greatest psychological distress associated with temporary unemployment, but only Asian Americans had significantly more psychological distress, as associated with pay cuts.

This is the first study with a nationally representative US sample to explore the links between employment change and psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a limitation of the survey sample was that the numbers of participants in racial groups other than white, Hispanic, Black, or Asian, or with multiple racial identities, were too low to be included in the analysis, which reduces the generalizability of the findings.

Racial Health Disparities Magnified

Licensed clinical psychologist, and co-founder and director of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness, Suraji Wagage, PhD, JD, says, "This study found that individuals who identify as Black and Asian had the greatest increase in distress due to permanent job loss." 

Wagage explains that this study is meaningful in light of what is known about racial and ethnic disparities, as racial and ethnic minorities have experienced greater rates of job loss compared to white individuals, and experience worse health effects due to COVID-19, with respect to hospitalization and death, compared to white individuals.

Suraji Wagage, PhD, JD

The pandemic has also been marked by a surge in anti-Asian racism and violence. This study provides evidence of another way in which the pandemic may be disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities, i.e. mental health.

— Suraji Wagage, PhD, JD

To contextualize this further, Wagage notes, "The pandemic has also been marked by a surge in anti-Asian racism and violence. This study provides evidence of another way in which the pandemic may be disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities, i.e. mental health."

Wagage highlights how research demonstrates that racial and ethnic minorities already have reduced access to mental health services when compared to white individuals. "They are less likely to receive the best available treatments, and already-limited mental health services have been further stretched thin during the pandemic," she says.

As the study notes, Wagage explains, "Depression after job loss also predicts lower rates of reemployment, which can lead to serious long-term negative outcomes. Interventions related to this topic must take into account the differential impact that job loss can have on individuals of different backgrounds, and the overlapping effects of disparities in multiple areas."

Significant Shame and Guilt

Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, Leela R. Magavi, MD, says, "Job loss and anxiety-inducing situations may disproportionately affect racial minorities."

Dr. Magavi explains, "These findings align with my clinical observations. My patients who identify as Asian American have conveyed that they feel a significant amount of shame and guilt when they are unable to work. Many of these individuals tend to internalize their feelings and blame themselves, which can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety."  

Since enmeshment can intensify feelings of distress, Dr. Magavi says, "In many Asian American families, if one individual feels distressed, every other family member absorbs this distress, which can lead to collective helplessness. Furthermore, many Asian American individuals derive their self-worth from work performance due to multi-generational influences."

Dr. Magavi explains that these research findings align well with existing literature on racial and ethnic mental health disparities. "While job loss can lead to distress, burnout can lead to anxiety and avoidance and increase absenteeism and job loss, perpetuating a vicious cycle," she says.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

My patients who identify as Asian American have conveyed that they feel a significant amount of shame and guilt when they are unable to work. Many of these individuals tend to internalize their feelings and blame themselves, which can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

On a positive note, Dr. Magavi highlights that employers are providing resources to improve wellbeing. "Individuals of all backgrounds can experience more distress based on their temperament and personality, factors which were not examined in this study," she says.

Dr. Magavi highlights, "Familial discord has significantly increased and many dyadic relationships are suffering due to stress caused by job loss and monetary concerns; in fact, many patients have filed for divorce."

In this way, Dr. Magavi notes how some individuals are increasingly exposed to domestic violence due to displaced anger caused by the pandemic and associated stressors, like job loss. "Individuals who endure domestic violence are more likely to engage in corporal punishment. Individuals who have celebrated their sobriety for years have relapsed," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, pandemic-related job losses have had a substantial impact on psychological distress, with Asian Americans being the most severely impacted, followed by Black Americans. These findings provide a pressing reason for greater racial justice efforts given these disparities in both employment and mental health.

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