Openness trait may help those with mild or moderate disabilities keep jobs

David Strauser, a   of kinesiology and community health, is the co-author of a n

David Strauser, a of kinesiology and community health, is the co-author of a new study that examined links between personality traits and employment tenure among people with mild or moderate disabilities, an area that has been largely unexamined in prior disability and special education research.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- People with mild or moderate disabilities who are creative, intellectually curious and attentive to their feelings - those who score higher on the personality trait openness - may be significantly more likely to maintain employment, suggests a new study co-written by David Strauser, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois.

Personality traits were found to be significantly relevant to maintaining employment for people with disabilities who had only a high school education or less, according to a report on the study, which appeared recently in the journal Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin.

While many studies in business and industrial psychology have explored the relationship between personality traits and employment in the non-disabled population, their relevance for people with disabilities is less well established, Strauser said.

“We’ve known for a while that people with disabilities don’t lose or fail to get jobs because they lack skills, it’s more because of social issues in the workplace,” Strauser said. “Personality is not something that’s typically analyzed in the areas of disability, special education and rehabilitation research. And for the majority of people, who have mild to moderate disabilities rather than severe disabilities, personality may be a more robust variable that contributes to employment.”

According to the five-factor model of personality development, five enduring traits - openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism - form the framework of everyone’s personality. The study examined the relationships among the five personality traits, work behavior efficacy and employment tenure for 56 people with mild to moderate disabilities.

All participants in the study had a diagnosed physical, psychiatric or learning disability and were receiving state vocational rehabilitation. Participants ranged from 19 to 69 years in age and more than half were female (57 percent).

More than 28 percent reported that their longest consecutive period of prior employment lasted a year or more, more than 21 percent reported tenure of six months, 14 percent reported three months’ tenure and about 17 percent had worked less than three months.

The personality traits of conscientiousness and neuroticism were found to be predictors of contextual work behavior self-efficacy, a set of behaviors that prior research has linked to job tenure and that relate to participants’ confidence in their abilities to function independently on the job and perform tasks well, to interact positively with supervisors and adapt to stress.

People who scored higher on conscientiousness reported higher levels of work behavior self-efficacy, while people who scored higher in neuroticism - defined as the tendency to express anxiety, fear, negative affect or self-reproach - reported lower confidence in performing work behaviors.

The study also found significant correlations between work behavior efficacy and employment tenure.

In examining relationships between each of the five personality traits and prior employment, however, only openness was found to have a significant impact on length of prior employment.

“It was really surprising to us that openness emerged as the greatest predictor of employment tenure,” Strauser said. “It might be that those people are open to new experiences, willing to try different things and to think of things differently. That might be something that allows them to do better and meet the demands of the work environment a little bit better.”

All 56 participants were unemployed at the time of data collection, which occurred during a time of unusually high levels of unemployment nationally (9-11 percent) and in Illinois (9 percent), where all the participants resided, Strauser said.

The sample was more educated than is typical for populations with disabilities. More than 35 percent were high school graduates, more than 15 percent had two-year degrees, slightly more than 13 percent had bachelor’s degrees and more than 3 percent had completed graduate school.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are far less likely to have education beyond high school compared to their nondisabled peers.

An analysis conducted to explore whether the sample’s high education level and the high unemployment rate had confounded the results indicated that neuroticism and openness were significantly related to length of prior employment for people who had a high school education or less but not for people who had postsecondary education. The finding was unusual since none of the participants’ scores in the personality measures were extreme.

Strauser cautioned that the sample was small and that further study is needed to determine if the findings are replicable or if they were anomalous to the current study.

Deirdre O’Sullivan, a former graduate student at Illinois who is now a faculty member at Pennsylvania State University, and graduate student Alex W.K. Wong were co-authors on the study.

 
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