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A Year Of Living Under COVID-19

Part 3: Employment, Income and Mental Health

Over the past year, many Malaysians saw their employment, business and incomes decline due to the pandemic. We take a closer look at the impact of these changes on mental well-being.

By Aziff Azuddin, Ziad Razak & Nelleita Omar28 April 2021

In Part 1 of this research series on COVID-19 and well-being, we found that more than half of survey respondents reported experiencing worsened mental well-being over the past year. In terms of demographics, women and people under 35 years old showed the worst mental health scores relative to other demographic groups, in both incidence as well as severity. The survey also showed a clear relationship between physical and mental well-being; those who reported worsened mental well-being over the past year were more likely to report worsened physical well-being too.

Part 2 of this research series discussed findings on the effects of living arrangements, and social isolation emerged as a possibly important driver of mental health. Respondents who live alone seemed to experience worse mental well-being levels compared to those who live with other people. Respondents who work from home every day also appeared to have worse mental well-being scores compared to those who work from home less often.

In this third instalment of the research series, we analyse respondents’ answers on changes to employment and income during the past year against their reported mental well-being levels. As can be expected, precarious employment status had a negative effect on mental health. 

Note: Respondents’ mental health or well-being was measured against their responses to the DASS-21 questionnaire. For more details on how the DASS-21 questionnaire was applied, as well as the study’s overall methodology, please refer to Part 1.

Employment Status and Well-being

As shown in Figure 1, unemployed respondents reported the worst levels of mental well-being compared to others, across all dimensions measured i.e. in levels of mild to extremely severe depression (77%), anxiety (73%) and stress (62%) respectively. This is closely followed by respondents who are part-time employees, who reported the second highest levels of depression (70%) and stress (52%) relative to other respondents. 

In terms of severity, respondents who are unemployed or who are part-time employees reported very similar levels of severe and extremely severe depression (43%-50%), anxiety (39%-46%) and stress (33%-34%).

Figure 1: Employment Status and Levels of Reported Well-being

Changes in Employment Status and Well-being

Respondents were asked how work had changed for them in the past year in order for us to ascertain if specific changes had different effects on mental well-being levels. 

As shown in Figure 2, respondents who are still full-time employees at the time of the survey had the least change in work compared to respondents with other employment status, many of whom experienced reduced pay, retrenchment or business closure.

Figure 2: Employment Status vs. Changes in Work Over The Past Year

Did these specific work changes produce different mental health effects?

Figure 3 below shows that the answer is likely no; the various ways in which work changed for respondents resulted in fairly similar* levels of negative mental health. The key takeaway here is that those who had the least impact on their mental well-being were respondents who did not experience much change in their working life compared to other respondents.

Figure 3: Changes in Work and Levels of Reported Well-being

*Note: Respondents who are unable to work (reasons unprobed) showed slightly higher levels of depression (83%) and stress (75%) compared to other respondents, as well as very severe levels of anxiety (75%) and stress (59%) comparatively. However, as these respondents make up a small percentage of the sample (under 2%), we abstain from singling out this group in this analysis.

Income and Well-Being

Respondents’ work changes shown in Figure 2 above had corresponding implications on their income. As shown in Figure 4 below, respondents who are full-time employees were the most stable, experiencing the least income contraction relative to other respondents.

In comparison, the majority of part-time employees, the self-employed, business owners and the unemployed reported levels of income decline. Business owners, freelancers/self-employed/gig workers and the unemployed appear to suffer the most acute contraction, with over 70% of them reporting drops in income by more than 20% over the past year.

Figure 4: Employment Status vs. Changes in Income Over the Past Year

How did changes in income impact mental well-being? The picture is more mixed compared to changes in employment; Figure 5 below shows that those with reduced income reported slightly higher levels of depression and anxiety but respondents with increased income reported quite similar levels of depression and anxiety, and even higher levels of stress. Other factors may likely be bigger predictors of mental health levels than changes in income, which may have been cushioned to some extent by various buffers such as family support, governmental cash transfers and EPF withdrawals.

Figure 5: Changes in Income and Levels of Reported Well-being

In addition to changes in income, respondents were also asked to state their current personal income as well as their current household income, shown in Figure 6 below. More than half of respondents who are part-time employees or freelancers/gig workers/self-employed declared earning less than RM2,500 in gross personal income, as well as a large proportion (46%) of business owners. Household incomes for most respondents are generally higher than personal incomes, though quite a large proportion of respondents who are unemployed or part-time workers are in the RM2,500 and under income band for both personal and household income.

Figure 6: Gross Personal and Household Income, Overall and by Employment Status

But does absolute income have a significant impact on mental well-being? 

Figure 7 shows that respondents who earn monthly personal incomes of RM5,000 and below report slightly higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress compared to respondents who earn higher levels of personal income.

Figure 7: Gross Personal Income and Levels of Reported Well-being

The pattern is largely similar for household income as shown in Figure 8 below; respondents in households earning RM5,000 and below monthly report slightly higher levels of anxiety and stress compared to respondents in higher earning households. However, the difference in depression levels across income bands is more unclear.

Figure 8: Gross Household Income and Levels of Reported Well-being


From a simple descriptive analysis perspective, employment status appears to be driving differences in mental health levels. The unemployed appear to be particularly vulnerable compared to other employment groups, though reported mental well-being levels for part-time employees are also notably concerning. With respect to income, respondents earning less than RM 5,000 in both personal and household incomes appear to be more affected in mental well-being relative to other income groups.

The next and final instalment of this research series will delve into the results of our regression analysis which aims to identify the biggest predictors of mental health captured by our study. In the meantime however, it is worthwhile asking whether the country is sufficiently addressing the most economically vulnerable groups, particularly those who have been retrenched during the pandemic. 

Over the past year, the government has attempted to address these issues through the PENJANA stimulus package, amongst others. However, we may need more sustained policy measures for those facing a longer employment recovery period than others. Policy measures such as redesigning existing skilling platforms, as argued in our research article published last year, is a necessary step to help those looking for better opportunities in difficult times. This involves making these platforms easier to navigate, and to be more sensitive towards the individual’s relevant interests and needs.

Alongside skilling platforms, there should also be more collaboration between the government and civil society to provide career counselling programmes that concurrently addresses the mental well-being needs of affected individuals.

A recap of this multi-part research series on living with the pandemic, its mental health effects and the policy implications will be presented in the next and final instalment – stay tuned.

If you are experiencing emotional or mental health difficulties, get support and help on these hotlines: Mercy Malaysia and the Ministry of Health Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre’s psychosocial support hotline at 03-29359935. Ministry of Women and Family Development’s Talian Kasih hotline at 15999 or WhatsApp 019-2615999.

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