This has been republished as part of Mental Health Awareness week. Oringally published 15 October 2015.  

A few weeks ago, articles appeared attacking the support provided to long term unemployed people, specifically individuals with mental health issues, through the Work Programme and its myriad of specialist providers. The arguments criticise both the support and the results, whilst calling for lower cost schemes to be substituted for those who need help the most. These counter-intuitive arguments need to be tackled head on, whilst agreement should be reached on the reforms to the system that are needed to ensure the best support is provided at the right time to people with mental health conditions.

Official figures show that at least 10% of Work Programme customers suffer from a mental health condition, although providers at the frontline know that this figure is, in reality, a lot higher. Being unemployed in and of itself can cause new and entrench existing mental health problems, especially with some jobseekers having been out of the work for many years. Mental health support is therefore a huge element of the sessions, programmes and specialist provision delivered under the programme, both by mental health charities and mainstream providers. However, not everyone referred through to the Work Programme through the WCA should be there; some individuals with mental conditions should be in the support group. It is important that the system gets it right first time. Nonetheless, work is good for you – in any critique it is vital not to overlook the positive and well-evidenced link between being in work and mental wellbeing. As the campaign Time to Change highlights, problems like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not need to stop you from working (or by extension, prevent you from being provided with support to help you move towards work). In fact, the opposite should be true.

Take the example of Mark, a young man from Burton-on-Trent who suffered with depression due to ongoing health concerns. Since his heart surgery in December 2012, Mark was on Employment Support Allowance and his confidence, motivation and self-esteem were low as he had been out of work for about a year. Mark joined the Work Programme and, with the help of his learndirect advisers, Josh Golding and Lisa Samuels, took a counselling course and completed a Customer Service Apprenticeship. After struggling to sustain in a job due to his ongoing health problems, he started his own business and also has a Warehouse Operative job with growing local firm CTS Toner Supplies, who were impressed by his thorough work and professionalism. Mark also continues building his online sales business, which is going from strength to strength. Following his support via the Work Programme, he said: “The best thing about being in work is the sense of pride you get. Knowing that you put your own bread and butter on the table is a special feeling when you’ve been in a situation where you couldn’t before.”  

What is true is that some people with complex needs, including individuals with mental health conditions, may take longer than others to move towards and into the workplace. Therefore we believe that a number of jobseekers should have longer on the Work Programme than the allotted two years, which should in turn improve results. The programme should also ‘stop the clock’ when intensive mental health support is being delivered, for example through local IAPT services, and introducing milestone payments for providers along the way would help some, especially smaller specialists, to fund the support required. Removing the challenges of data sharing between IAPT and employment services would make a significant difference to the referral from and coherence of the support provided. Greater integration, rather than greater fragmentation, of services should be the direction of travel.

It is also clear, however, that the sanctions regime is in need of further reforms to ensure that the most vulnerable are not being adversely impacted. This aspect of the system is not under the control of Work Programme providers but is instead administered by JobCentre Plus. ERSA has called for an overhaul of the current benefit sanctions regime and has put forward a five point plan to increase its effectiveness. This is particularly important as we look towards the future of employment support programmes and the structures which surround them.

Finally, what is key is to champion a better way to identify and prioritise those who need support the most. Many Work Programme providers are undertaking comprehensive assessments of jobseekers once they are on their programme, but at this point each individual has already been crudely categorised by benefit type and assigned to support. An improved system would provide a holistic needs-based assessment for all jobseekers at the point of unemployment, to enable those who need support the most to receive it at the earliest possible opportunity. This would identify debt, housing, mental health, childcare, family support and a number of other crucial issues which only worsen the longer individuals are left to languish or cycle through the system.

Mark and thousands of others have turned their lives around with help from the Work Programme – support which is taking place right across the UK today. Fragmenting the system could risk stigmatising those receiving help and present challenges to initially engaging key groups onto the support available. Introducing a fuller assessment of needs and ensuring a timely referral to support, all within a reformed sanctions regime, would be crucial blocks in improving the experiences of the long term unemployed with mental health conditions.

By Sam Windett, Head of Policy and Communications, ERSA