Precarious Work & Mental Well-Being in New Spaces: A Transformative Mixed Methods Study among Bhutanese Refugees in Central Ohio

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Dr. Madhumita Dutta, Department of Geography
Rank at time of award: Assistant Professor

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Dr. Arati Maleku, College of Social Work
Rank at time of award: Assistant Professor

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Dr. Binaya Subedi, College of Education and Human Ecology
Rank at time of award: Associate Professor

Precarious work and working conditions associated with employment have been increasingly identified as a social determinant of health affecting the health and well-being of workers, families and communities. Although precarity of work as a social determinant of health has been an emerging field of study, the linkages between precarious employment and adverse health outcomes has been a central challenge in the public health literature. This challenge is even more crucial in the migration context, where, although employment has received overwhelming attention as a critical factor in successful refugee resettlement, little is known about the risk and protective factors surrounding work and employment conditions that impact refugee health. Refugees face unique employment challenges given language barriers, cultural factors, immigration status, and past experiences of employment. These challenges may be compounded by the urgency of their situation, transition to new spaces, and limited opportunity to network with family members at home or elsewhere. Further, racial discrimination and labor exploitation of immigrant/refugee population has been a recurring phenomenon in the U.S. Despite these social and structural disadvantages faced by refugees surrounding work, working conditions and employment, there remains significant gaps in the literature explicating the linkages between employment precariousness and structural vulnerability factors that impede the overall mental well-being of refugees. While economic self-sufficiency, adaptation, and integration of refugees to the U.S. economic and financial systems are central to refugee resettlement programs, employment precariousness and its impact on refugee well-being, particularly mental health and well-being remains largely under investigated. These gaps are particularly salient in the context of Bhutanese refugee population, where there is limited research on their experiences with work, employment conditions, structural vulnerability and adverse mental well-being. While members of the Bhutanese refugee community are recruited in low-end jobs, the insecure and precarious nature of employment compounded by factors such as, racial discrimination, low pay, poor conditions of work, fewer hours of work and insecure employment condition continually elevate collective anxiety among the population. Investigation of the relationship between precarious work, structural vulnerability factors and mental well-being will provide a nuanced understanding of the mental health vulnerabilities in the migration context and provide program and policy implications related to refugee resettlement as well as immigrant inclusion efforts in local and national settings.

The proposed research project seeks to fill the important gaps in the literature by: (a) exploring the interplay of migration and socio-structural determinants of work and working conditions that create everyday conditions of precarity and structural vulnerability and (b) examining the risk and protective factors related to employment precariousness and their impact on mental well-being trajectories among the increasing Bhutanese refugee population in the central Ohio region. Our study will use CBPR approach as a transformative lens to include community voices at the center of the study.An exploratory sequential mixed methods design encased within the CBPR approach will be conducted in three interrelated phases of data collection and integration of qualitative and quantitative findings.Data will be collected from two focus group discussions (N=12) to generate beginning themes and substantive theory (Phase I) that will inform variable identification and development of survey instrument. A community survey (N=200) using community data collectors will be conducted in the second phase (Phase II). Drawing from the quantitative survey sample, in-depth interviews (N=15) in the form of life-stories will be conducted to capture inter-generational dimensions of work experiences and mental well-being (Phase III). Findings from the study will provide a solid foundation for understanding the specific nature of precarity related to work and its effects on mental well-being on refugees in particular contexts and locations. Given the focus of the study in the local context, findings of the study will be helpful for human service providers and mental health workers working with Bhutanese refugee population in the central Ohio region. Study findings will also provide implications for more effective refugee resettlement policies and programs that will holistically address issues related to work, social and cultural sensibilities and mental well-being of refugee sub-populations.