Although many studies have shown that inequalities have widened in many ways ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the discussion has focused on objective measures, such as numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, access to healthcare and medical treatment, or unemployment/poverty. Less attention has been paid to inequality consequences in connection with subjective experience.
Objectively, studies have shown that chances of physical as well as economic survival are not evenly distributed across class, racial and ethnic groups, as well as residential areas and regions, with the disadvantaged vulnerable to more severe consequences. Subjectively, however, it is unclear whether disadvantaged population groups also bear more psychological burdens.
Situated in the early-stage COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK, the recent study I conducted with David Bartram has examined the above puzzle. Around 7.6 million jobs in the UK, amounting to 24 per cent of the workforce, were at risk shortly after the economic lockdowns took place in March, 2020. By focusing on the impact of work hour reduction on mental well-being between immigrant and native-born working men, this study provides direct evidence about the impact of rising labor market inequality on mental well-being inequality under the global crisis.
Findings of this study have convincingly shown that immigrant men are more likely than their UK-born counterparts to lose work hours without income protection and to be out of jobs. This, in turn, causes larger decreases in immigrant men’s mental well-being. Namely, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a trend for widening inequalities with the disadvantaged further losing ground, both objectively and subjectively.
This study is based on high-quality data from Understanding Society – the UK Household Longitudinal Survey. The COVID19 survey is conducted on a monthly basis, starting in April, 2020, mainly focusing on experiences related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We use the two waves (April and May 2020) that have become available following the launch of this study.
We categorize respondents into four groups based on the extent to which their work hours are reduced due to COVID-19 lockdowns. They are: ‘no hour reduction’ (including those whose work hours do not change or even increase), ‘reduced hours with income protection’ (consisting of respondents whose work hours are reduced but whose income is substantially protected by the provision of social benefits), ‘reduced hours without income protection’ (referring to those whose work hours are reduced but who do not benefit from any specific income protection schemes offered by the government or the employer), and ‘not working’ (describing those whose work hours are completely cut off, though their employment might not be officially ended).
As Figure 1 presents, lockdown-related work hour changes are unevenly distributed between native-born and immigrant working men. In April, the proportion of immigrant men who have completely lost their work hours is almost triple times as high as that of their native-born counterparts. In May, while the percentage of immigrant men who were not working has dropped from 7.5% to 3.6%, their risk of having non-protected work hour reduction has increased drastically – about 12% higher than that of native-born workers.
It is thus clear that immigrant men bear greater costs of the economic lockdowns by experiencing higher risks of being out of work (in April) and having work hours reduced without income protection (in May).
Mental well-being is subsequently compared across the four groups, as well as between immigrant and UK-born men in each of the groups, which is indicated by General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) scores. GHQ is derived from twelve standard questions about one’s recent experience of ability to concentrate, loss of sleep, playing a useful role, ability to make decisions, feeling under strain, problems overcoming difficulties, enjoyment of day-to-day activities, ability to face problems, feeling unhappy/depressed, losing confidence, sense of worthlessness, and
general happiness. GHQ is an effective measure of emotional/mental distress in a short term, with higher values representing higher levels of distress and lower levels of mental well-being.
Figure 2 shows that prior to the pandemic, immigrant working men have lower GHQ scores – namely, better mental well-being – relative to UK-born working men. In April and May, we see increases in GHQ scores across the board, with immigrants’ GHQ scores now on par with or even higher than their native-born counterparts. With the baseline subjective well-being (SWB) levels taken into account, it is clear that immigrant working men bear higher psychosocial costs for work hour reduction.
Our analyses further show that compared to native-born men having expected work hours (or more), native-born men experiencing reduced hours with income protection enjoy a better mental well-being state. Native-born men having reduced hours without income protection experience an increase in distress, and the increase in distress is even higher for those out of work entirely. Immigrants fare significantly less well, as work hour reduction hurts the mental well-being of immigrant working men more than that of their native-born counterparts, whether income is protected or not.
In summary, employment disruption in the circumstances of the pandemic does not necessarily hurt SWB of the native-born, as long as their income is protected. For immigrants, however, work hour reduction is always accompanied with psychological costs, with the costs being higher when income is not protected than protected, and the highest when immigrant workers are completely out of work.
Jing Shen and David Bartram. “Fare differently, feel differently: mental well-being of UK-born and foreign-born working men during the COVID-19 pandemic” in European Societies 2020.
Image: Sasha Freemind via Unsplash