The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Pursuing Employment: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Participants in a Housing First Program

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 3:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 103A Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sharon Osterweil, MPH, Graduate Student, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY
Ana Stefancic, MSPH, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background/Significance: High rates of unemployment persist among adults with mental illness, particularly those who have struggled with poverty, homelessness, alcohol/substance use, and/or incarceration. Research has identified Supported Employment (SE), and particularly Individual Placement and Support (IPS) as an Evidence-Based Practice, but sustained periods of job seeking and employment are still uncommon. Methods: Semi-structured, qualitative interviews were conducted with job-seeking adults receiving SE-based employment services in a Housing First program. 20 participants who experienced “key events”—job interviews and offers, jobs lasting 1 month, and job loss, completed an interview at each key event. 6 participants who did not experience any key events during the study period but were in the same SE-based program were also interviewed. Transcripts were coded and analyzed using grounded theory and Atlas.ti qualitative data analysis software. Results: Preliminary results suggest several findings: 1) Participants carefully weighed the risk of losing SSI/DI and thus the potential of being unable to meet basic needs against the financial opportunity that work provides to pursue higher-order goals such as education and providing for loved ones. 2)  Many participants conceptually constructed their job role, across a wide range of occupations, whether as a concierge, in maintenance, or secretarial work, as helping others, which both contributed to their self-worth and enjoyment of the work. 3) Participants noted that computer and internet skills were an ever-more integral part of searching for jobs; younger participants used technology with ease, while older participants were generally less tech savvy, but more enthusiastic about improving their skills. 4) At all phases of job-seeking, participants encountered a lack of response from employers and faced the stressful task of making sense of uncertainty. Conclusions and Implications: Participants’ deliberations weighing the risks of losing benefits – and the security of basic necessities – against the potential to achieve personal goals and make family contributions are more nuanced than current literature suggests and reflect Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We recommend practitioners consider addressing participants’ higher order needs in discussions of employment. Next, seeing work as giving back to others regardless of occupation may be a significant motivator that practitioners can explore with most job seekers. Further research could explore how the degree of social participation might affect the conceptualizing of helping others as a work motivator. SE programs will increasingly need to promote technological skills training to assist participants with job searching.  These skills are of growing importance even for low-wage and low-skill jobs. Finally, providers may better prepare individuals for job-seeking by emphasizing that employer ambiguity and lack of response are common challenges for those pursuing employment and assist consumers with effective coping methods.