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Why our migrant workers need extra support during Covid-19

Tuesday, Feb 2, 2021

Photo of worker comforting upset collegueWith the number of Covid-19 infections increasing globally, migrants living and working in New Zealand need increased support from their employers as they deal with heightened fear, distress and guilt caused by anxiety about the families they have left behind.

Frog Recruitment’s marketing manager Rémi Marcelin moved to New Zealand in 2017, initially to finish his master’s degree. He loves living here but his homeland France, where his family are, is facing a tough situation, registering 20,000 new cases of Covid-19 a day.

“My mum works at the hospital and has been walking a fine line between overworking and burning out. More and more of her colleagues are both physically and mentally tired at work, and the end of this situation is nowhere to be seen,” he says.

Through his work, Rémi is in frequent contact with other migrants. “New Zealand has handled the COVID pandemic extremely well compared to most countries, and this has created a massive disconnect with the rest of the world that can at times be tricky to manage. Most of us agree that it has made some aspects of our lives increasingly difficult.”

For Rémi, the situation in France means he’s careful about what he posts on social media so he is not having a detrimental effect on the mental health of friends and family overseas who are stuck in lockdown or living under a strict curfew. Given his immigration status, he also finds himself constantly weighing up his next move.

“If a death happens in my family, would it even be possible to go home? How expensive is it? Should I go home even if it means losing my job, my visa and the life I’ve built here? Will I easily find a job if I go back home?

“During the pandemic, the New Zealand Government has kept repeating the slogan ‘He waka eke noa’ – we are in this together. But today, I am not in this with my family.”

Counselling Psychologist Matthew Kalloor says that many migrants who have older or more vulnerable family members living overseas are concerned about them becoming ill.

“The once freely available option of being able to travel home for any familial need suddenly became a lot more difficult due to the pandemic. In situations where family members pass away, individuals face arduous travel or make the ‘choice’ of not travelling at all, creating a sense of guilt for having moved away from family in the first instance.”

With the pandemic creating severe economic impacts around the globe, many migrants living here are also worried about the financial situation of family back home.

Matthew, a migrant himself who has worked with New Zealand’s refugee and migrant communities, says one of the most devastating impacts of the pandemic has been the perceived and actual disruption of individual autonomy.

Individual autonomy is an important psychological factor that determines wellbeing as well as performance – continued lack of autonomy often creates a sense of helplessness that manifests in despair, he says.

Belong Aotearoa CEO Rochana Sheward says that after living in a pandemic for a year, feeling concerned about loved ones abroad is the norm for migrants.

“This constant anxiety is not a good state to be in,” she says.

Last year she dealt with a situation where one of her team lost a parent suddenly to Covid-19. The funeral was held within 12 hours and her colleague was unable to travel to their homeland. Being so far away from family put extra stress on the grieving staff member.

In this type of situation, it’s important for employers to find out how they can support their team member in a culturally appropriate way,” says Rochana.

“I sought external advice about what I could do – this included visiting them at home and encouraging their other colleagues to visit, with the understanding that the culture of that person included collective grieving.”

People leaders shouldn’t wait until there is a death to offer extra support, Rochana says.

“The key is to engage in conversations to find out what is culturally appropriate before things happen – it’s important to understand the growing cultural diversity of teams and the global context within which we work.”

Practical support can include checking in with employees who have family overseas, referring them to organisations that can provide advice or coping strategies, and understanding that different time zones mean people may be up late talking to family during the week or need to make a call during working hours.

“Find out what the employee needs to reduce anxiety and how, if necessary, work hours can be adjusted.”

Matthew Kalloor says it’s important employers recognise that we don’t all experience the pandemic in the same way, and that’s the same for migrants.

“The place of origin, the country where one's extended family live and a myriad of other circumstances will undoubtedly have an impact,” he says.

Matthew advises meeting each individual “where they are at”.

“A key point to consider is the difference between coming alongside versus dictating or directing solutions in situations where our colleagues are impacted. I would be inclined to view the impact of the pandemic as one of loss, and with significant loss comes grief. It is very unlikely that we will offer solutions to people who have suffered loss; our natural tendency would be to come alongside and offer support in meaningful and practical ways.”

Look at the role of the team – research in organisational psychology shows that individual autonomy is strengthened by the positive impacts of being part of a safe, well-managed team.

“Knowing that one is not alone, even if they feel alone, is probably the most fundamental contributor to a sense of wellbeing. Safe teams allow for safe communication and a place to be heard, which increases the likelihood that those who are struggling will reach out to ask for support.”

Rémi Marcelin agrees that it’s important to have someone to talk to. “The first step might be to simply ask how they are feeling… about their family, about the situation back at home, about their personal mental health.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, more and more New Zealand workers have felt isolated and disconnected from their workplace. This effect might be even stronger amongst foreign workers.

“If 2020 has been good at teaching us something, it is empathy and compassion. Let’s make sure we Kiwis and foreigners in New Zealand are supported at work. No matter whether you are a business leader, a manager or a colleague, a simple, ‘Are you okay?’ can be the beginning of a more meaningful conversation.”



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