The challenges that immigrants face in the workplace

May 16, 2022
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Most immigrants that arrive in Canada actually appear to have better health than most Canadians.

Have you ever tried to watch a foreign film or show without subtitles? I’m guessing that answer  is most likely no because… well, how enjoyable would that experience be if you don’t fully understand what’s going on? But even with subtitles, it’s likely that some references or jokes in a foreign movie/show can get lost in translation or even leave you feeling a bit confused.  

If you’ve ever experienced something like this, then you’ve gotten a tiny glimpse into some of the challenges that foreign workers might face as they integrate into a new and unfamiliar environment.

Interestingly, most immigrants that arrive in Canada actually appear to have better health than most Canadians: a phenomenon researchers call the “Healthy Immigrant Effect”. But unfortunately, this effect seems to change in the long-term with immigrant health declining over time. Some challenges that are suspected to contribute to the worsening health of immigrants include social exclusion, a lack of important support systems, and a loss of occupational identity - all of which can be influenced by experiences in the workplace. Since approximately 1 in 4 workers in Canada are immigrants, it’s important to better understand some of the specific challenges that these foreign workers face in the workplace.  

Parlez-vous Anglais?

Language is an important factor impacting the mental health of immigrants in the workplace, particularly because it directly and indirectly contributes to their success in this context. For example, having fluency in English and/or French has been linked to financial success in Canada. In fact, immigrants that are more skilled in their ability to communicate in English or French are more likely to be employed in higher skilled jobs, whereas those who lack such skills are more likely to work in low-wage jobs.  

Potayto-Potahto, Tomayto-Tomahto… Accents can pose a challenge

Research suggests that many immigrants feel their pronunciation is a major cause of communication breakdowns and that other people often don’t understand their speaking. When encountering these sorts of communication breakdowns, foreign workers resort to a variety of different communication strategies such as paraphrasing, repeating themselves, writing/spelling things out, adjusting the volume of their voice, or even avoiding the situation altogether.  

These barriers to communication also come from both sides with foreign workers having difficulty understanding locals’ accents and local workers having trouble understanding foreign workers’ accents. In fact, some of the most frequent communication challenges that newcomers in Canada face relate to the accents of locals (although it may be subtle, Canadians from different regions often have different accents!) as well as how fast they speak.  

Unfortunately, these sorts of communication challenges make it very difficult for foreign workers to be able to get their message across in various workplace situations. Even further, these challenges can also undermine their confidence about whether they understand others at work or feel understood themselves.

How does culture play into all of this?

Culture reflects “the way of life for an entire society.” This includes not only language, but differences in knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. Culture encompasses what we eat, what we wear, the television we watch, the music we consume, what we believe is right or wrong, and so much more.  

A lack of knowledge about Canadian culture or other information relevant to the local workplace culture can, understandably, make foreign workers feel a greater disconnect with colleagues. This may even lead some workers to avoid or remove themselves from conversations involving these topics altogether. Have you ever been in a conversation where everyone was talking about a topic that you had absolutely no background knowledge of? Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to develop a sense of belonging or inclusion in the workplace if you feel unable to understand, participate, and contribute to conversations and other forms of social activity.  

Getting lost in translation…

Cultural differences can also translate into communication challenges in the workplace. Foreign workers may have difficulty understanding what supervisors or other co-workers are asking of them simply because they don’t know the meaning of the terms commonly used in the workplace (for example, being asked to work a “double” would be confusing for someone who does not know the meaning of that term).

These challenges matter for everyone.

The communication difficulties many immigrant workers experience can contribute to feelings of nervousness or anxiety when encountering situations in which they would have to communicate with co-workers/superiors, which might lead them to avoid these situations when they can. This negative cycle of anxiety and avoidance can have a massive impact on their ability to not only integrate socially and professionally in the workplace, but also to perform and succeed in their position at work.

It is important for Canadian employers to understand the specific challenges that foreign employees face, particularly because these barriers can take a toll on their mental health, sense of belonging, and productivity. Through being more mindful of cultural barriers and fostering a more inclusive workplace environment, employers can help minimize the negative outcomes these challenges may produce.


Want to read more about the specific challenges foreign workers might face in Quebec? Check out Nurau’s original research on the future of the workplace and the role culture plays in the mental health of the next generation here!



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