Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Work and Wellness

Mental Health Month Blog Day Badge

This is a guest post from Jeffrey Stoller, Director of Communications and Outreach, John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development

Many people with disabilities have a special appreciation for how important a job is to a person’s well-being. This feeling comes from long years of experiencing disproportionately high unemployment despite having significant skills to share. It is not just the financial impact of being jobless that matters; there is a high emotional price that is paid as well.

May is a good time to remind the public and policymakers about the special importance of work to people eager to reach beyond their physical and emotional limitations. Every year since 1949, the National Mental Health Alliance (now known as Mental Health America) has designated the month of May as “Mental Health Month”. In May 2010, with millions of Americans out of work for the first time in their careers, this may be a “teachable moment” for many who have never recognized the connection between work and wellness.

The emotional toll of joblessness has been dramatically illustrated by two recent nationwide surveys conducted by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. The Center, which also hosts the NTAR Leadership Center, has tracked the views of American workers for more than a decade through its acclaimed Work Trends survey series. Its research generated headlines worldwide when it conducted a special poll of unemployed American workers just before Labor Day 2009 and again this spring.

The 1,200 jobless workers interviewed for last summer’s Anguish of Unemployment survey used language to describe their situation that would be familiar to anyone with disabilities who has sought – and been denied – an opportunity to work. The respondents described themselves as “discouraged”, “shaken”, “fearful”, “traumatized” and “scared of what will happen.” They reported “feeling worthless” and regretted that that they were “not contributing to family finances”.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 took a heavy toll on these individuals. Three-quarters of the jobless reported stress in their daily lives, two-thirds reported being depressed, three-fifths felt helpless, and more than half said they were angry. More than half suffered the embarrassment of borrowing money from family or friends, and believed recent changes to the U.S. economy were fundamental and lasting.

Six months later, 900 of the same people expressed similar feelings in a new Heldrich Center survey entitled No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment. Nearly 80% of the jobseekers were still unemployed, and many reported a deep sense of frustration and low esteem due to what they saw as outright discrimination in hiring. In the words of the report’s co-authors, “The inability of these jobseekers to new find opportunities is an economic and cultural disaster.”

So what’s the “good news” here? It seems to me that millions of Americans are experiencing for the first time what it feels to be a skilled person who cannot connect with meaningful work. Few know and understand this feeling better than the many talented people with disabilities who have frequently encountered prospective employers who fail to recognize an applicant’s countless abilities. There is a window of opportunity here: to explain the goals of disability employment to a diverse group that suddenly see the same barriers to work.

Today’s unemployed could be important allies in the fight to expand disability employment in the years ahead. The people made jobless in the current economic downturn include many innovative, highly-trained, highly-educated workers who understand the pain of having their skills overlooked or being offered a substandard wage.

This May, the best way for people with disabilities to celebrate Mental Health Month may be to reach out to other jobseekers. They may find they have a lot in common.

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