Occupational Downgrading Puts Mental Health at Risk

Occupational Downgrading Puts Mental Health at Risk


by Carlo Devillanova, Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences
Translated by Alex Foti

One of the avowed pillars of the EU's common migration policy is the ability to attract talent and skills that are capable of contributing to the dynamism of our economies. At the moment, this objective clearly contrasts with the difficulties of integrating foreign-born workers into labor markets, although major differences between European countries still remain. Ample empirical evidence demonstrates how immigrants tend to be employed in precarious and low-skilled jobs, often working in poorly regulated sectors and doing high-risk tasks (so called 3-D jobs — Dirty, Dangerous, and Demanding, as per Moyce and Schenker, 2018). An aspect immediately worth noting is that this phenomenon does not correspond to lower skill levels for immigrant workers. In fact, the data indicate that many of them suffer from significant occupational de-skilling in their jobs in the destination country, compared to the work they used to do in the country of origin (labeled occupational downgrading), resulting in high rates of overqualification, with respect to education and, more generally, the skills acquired. This phenomenon is even more marked for immigrants who do not possess the legal requirements to reside and/or work in Europe and who, therefore, cannot have their formal qualifications recognized.
The direct economic costs of underutilizing the skills of the immigrant workforce are well known. The literature has also investigated how occupational downgrading can also lead to negative consequences in terms of psychological well-being, which add to the psychosomatic stress factors associated with 3-D jobs, something that negatively affects the prospects of integration in the labor market and, more generally, the social fabric of the host country.

From an empirical point of view, these links have been extensively studied for the native population. Indeed, recent studies show how the loss of employment status has a causal impact on the mental health of workers in general, a result that can be reasonably extended to immigrant workers. However, data on employment trajectories are scant for migrant labor and the available evidence focuses on the correlation between mental distress and occupational overqualification in the destination country, assuming that the latter is caused by occupational downgrading upon arrival in the destination country. Furthermore, there are no studies on the relevance of the phenomenon for irregularly residing immigrants.

In a recent study, together with Anna Spada and Cristina Franco, I used the precious dataset of NAGA, an association of volunteers working for the social protection and health care assistance of and advancement of rights of foreigners and of Roma and Sinti populations (www.naga.it). These data allowed us to construct an exact measure of occupational downgrading and correlate it with the medical diagnosis reported. Furthermore, the sample allowed us to look at the experience of undocumented immigrants. The results demonstrate that immigrant workers who experience occupational downgrading have a considerably higher risk of suffering from psychological disorders.
The above highlights the importance of considering the impact that migration policies in their entirety, including restrictions on entry and integration policies in the labor market, have on the health of migrants. In particular, during  he periods of irregularity which frequently characterize migratory paths, the barriers to accessing the job market have consequences on mental well-being of migrants which add to all the other stress factors to which these individuals are constantly exposed. These factors risk contributing to widening social inequalities between natives and immigrants, as well as reducing the potential contribution of the latter to the dynamism of our economies.

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