Knowledge Share

Workplace Wellness in Clients with Disabilities

By Taryn Richardson, PhD

May 2024

Historically, people with disabilities have faced significant challenges in employment. They often encounter barriers to obtaining and maintaining jobs, such as unfavorable workplace practices, issues with accommodations and attitudinal barriers from employers and co-workers.

Despite these challenges, there has been an increase in employment rates for people with disabilities in recent years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Given these challenges and the rising employment rates, it is crucial for counselors to incorporate strategies for enhancing the well-being of workers with chronic illnesses and disabilities in the workplace.

Impact of Work on Well-Being

Work plays a central role in an individual’s life, and it can have both positive and negative implications on mental well-being. A person’s job satisfaction influences various aspects of their life, including job performance, productivity and attendance; commitment to the organization; mental and physical health; and overall satisfaction with life. Stressors, such as burnout, often stem from job demands and can have implications beyond the workplace, affecting their personal relationships and self-worth.

The literature on disability and job satisfaction reveals significant insights. Particularly, people with disabilities may find more satisfaction in receiving job offers than in specific job characteristics, as noted in Barbara Fritzsche and colleagues’ chapter on job satisfaction in Career Development, Employment and Disability in Rehabilitation: From Theory to Practice. Self-employment has also been associated with higher satisfaction levels among people with disabilities. However, challenges persist within the workplace, including barriers to inclusion, acceptance and receiving necessary accommodations. In a study published in Research in Developmental Disabilities in 2016, Yujeong Park and colleagues identified life satisfaction and job-related factors such as workload and pay as predictors of job satisfaction among people with disabilities.

As counselors, we are inherently concerned with the overall functioning and optimal wellness of individuals. Here are five strategies counselors can incorporate in their practice to help clients with disabilities or chronic illnesses improve their workplace well-being:

1. Understand individuals’ needs: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have some type of disability and 6 in 10 adults have a chronic disease. These conditions range from physical disabilities and developmental disabilities to mental health disorders, diabetes and cancer. Because each person’s experience is unique, with varying needs and functional limitations, it is important counselors use appropriate assessments to understand clients’ conditions and needs.

This understanding begins with building rapport and trust, which forms the foundation for effective communication and collaboration. Building rapport involves:

  • Demonstrating empathy and understanding toward clients’ unique lived experiences
  • Respecting client autonomy and understanding that people with disabilities or chronic conditions are experts on their own experiences
  • Using inclusive and respectful language, such as person-first language or preferred terms
  •  Creating a safe and accessible clinical environment
  • Demonstrating cultural sensitivity
  • Using models, such as the job demands-resources model, to identify possible stressors and supports in the workplace

2. Advocate and make accommodations: Because people with disabilities have historically faced discrimination and societal stigma, advocacy and self-advocacy are essential to help improve access. Counselors should understand their clients’ legal rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. They can also provide clients with the resources and skills they need to advocate for themselves in the workplace. For example, counselors can help clients learn to advocate and communicate their accommodation needs with employers. And they can tell them about the Job Accommodations Network, a free online resource that provides employers and employees with information and tools regarding appropriate workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. Rehabilitation counselors who specialize in disability and employment can also provide expertise on disability rights, accommodations and communication with employers.

3. Provide coping strategies and stress management: People with disabilities often report higher distress levels, particularly related to workplace stress. Using collaborative counseling approaches, practitioners can help clients identify specific stressors related to disability and chronic conditions in the workplace. Then, they can work together to develop coping strategies and stress management techniques tailored to the individual’s needs.

It can also be helpful to introduce mindfulness and relaxation exercises and provide psychoeducation on stress and coping. Acknowledging the importance of counseling and providing a safe space for discussing stressors and receiving support can also significantly enhance well-being.

4. Encourage clients to build social support networks: Social support is crucial for enhancing well-being in the workplace for individuals with disabilities and chronic conditions. Because inclusivity in the workplace fosters a supportive environment, counselors can encourage clients to connect with colleagues who share similar experiences. Clients can also find support networks outside of work through family, friends and community services.

In session, counselors can use role-playing exercises to help individuals navigate common workplace situations, and they can help clients identify trusted allies in the workplace as well as potential peer support programs or mentorship initiatives.

5. Identify barriers to career development and growth: Counselors should work with clients to identify and address obstacles to career advancement. This involves:

  • Assessing clients’ career trajectories   
  • Identifying their strengths, skills and areas for growth   
  • Discussing past achievements and experiences to gain insight into career preferences and aspirations   
  • Helping them create a career development plan that enhances job security and overall well-being

Counselors play a vital role in enhancing the well-being and success of workers with chronic illnesses and disabilities in the workplace. By understanding individual needs, advocating for accommodations, teaching coping strategies, fostering social support and promoting career growth, counselors can empower their clients to thrive professionally and lead fulfilling lives.

Key Takeaways 

  • Each person’s experience is unique.
  • Advocacy can help improve access for people with disabilities.
  • Counselors can help clients develop coping strategies and stress management techniques to deal with workplace stress.
  • Inclusivity in the workplace fosters a supportive environment. 
  • A career development plan can enhance job security and overall well-being.

Taryn Richardson, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and a certified rehabilitation counselor. Her research and work centers on cultivating the professional identity and leadership development of counseling students and counseling professionals, promoting well-being in the workforce, and improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities.

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