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UCLA-led Research Finds Americans Suffering Psychological Distress Over Pandemic-Related Job Loss

Researchers found “racial and ethnic minorities have undoubtedly suffered the most, on multiple levels … during COVID-19”

Monday, November 22, 2021
Negative employment changes during the COVID-19 pandemic are associated with psychological distress, according to a new study led by UCLA scientists and published in the November edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

With data from the national population-based Health, Ethnicity, and Pandemic (HEAP) Study, in-depth analyses indicated that, among U.S. adults who were working before the COVID-19 pandemic, negative employment changes, including pay cuts, temporary job loss, and permanent job loss, were associated with higher psychological distress. Stratified analyses by race further revealed the effects of negative employment changes on psychological distress were greatest among Asian Americans and Black Americans.

“The aim of our study was to examine the influence of COVID-19 pandemic on employment and how that would affect Americans’ mental health,” said Dr. Liwei Chen, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health associate professor of epidemiology and a lead author of the study. “Our study is unique in that it’s a national representative sample and captures the acute and rapid employment loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – unemployment spiked from approximately 4% to 14% in March 2020.”

The research – “Negative Employment Changes During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Psychological Distress" – is published in the November edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study is led by UCLA researchers in collaboration with scholars from seven other U.S. and international institutions.

Notably, the study highlights the growing health and income disparities between racial/ethnic groups in the U.S which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, citing increased white-nonwhite gaps in employment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic instigated sudden and widespread changes throughout society, with dramatic effects on workers,” said Timothy Matthews, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences 

Timothy Matthews

at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the first author of the study.

“However, we have seen that the impacts of COVID-19 are not equally distributed among demographic groups – racial and ethnic minorities have undoubtedly suffered the most, on multiple levels, and our study presents evidence of mental health inequities during COVID-19.”

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), induced by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has caused a worldwide pandemic since March, 2020. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Nov. 19, more than 768,000 Americans with COVID-19 have died since January, 2020.

While statistical analyses of the entire study sample found increased psychological distress with negative employment changes, especially permanent job loss, further subgroup analyses by race/ethnicity showed that, compared to White people, Asian people were most severely affected, followed by Black people.

Furthermore, only Asian people experienced significantly greater psychological distress when experiencing pay cuts, while other races/ethnicities did not. Asian people also had the highest level of psychological distress among all racial/ethnic subgroups.

“These findings have implications for the current sociopolitical climate in the U.S. Over the past year, people have shown an increasing demand for social and racial justice, first with the Black Lives Matter movement, and followed by the Stop Asian Hate movement,” said Dr. Jian Li, professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and School of Nursing. “Given the prolonged state of the economic downturn, the findings from our study add to the weight of evidence showing a critical need for comprehensive government and employer policy interventions, which should consider racial equity as an outcome. We need to protect our workers, and their mental health.”

Methods: In the national HEAP Study, information on negative employment changes during the COVID-19 pandemic was used to examine associations with psychological distress in 1,510 adults who were working prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Further stratified analyses were conducted across racial subgroups. Weighting procedures were used to bring the distributions of the sample in line with the broader population distribution of the U.S.

Funding: This work was supported by the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at University of Nebraska Medical Center, the Chinese Economists Society, and Calvin J. Li Memorial Foundation. In addition, it was supported by a start-up grant from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Data availability statement: The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author and the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at University of Nebraska.

Citation: Matthews TA, Chen L, Chen Z, Han X, Shi L, Li Y, Wen M, Zhang D, Li H, Su D, Li J. Negative Employment Changes During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Psychological Distress: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey in the U.S. J Occup Environ Med. 2021 Nov; 63(11): 931-937. DOI: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000002325. PMID: 34267107.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, founded in 1961, is dedicated to enhancing the public's health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals from diverse backgrounds, translating research into policy and practice, and serving our local communities and the communities of the nation and the world. The school has 761 students from 26 nations engaged in carrying out the vision of building healthy futures in greater Los Angeles, California, the nation and the world.