working on itBack to work support provided through the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus is causing severe anxiety for people with disabilities and pushing them further from the job market, a report has found.

‘Fulfilling Potential? ESA and the fate of the Work Related Activity Group’ found that the Work Programme or Jobcentre Plus had helped just 5% of respondents move into work, while 6 in 10 said that their health, finances, confidence and sense of purpose had all suffered as a result.

This has led to calls for an overhaul of the back to work support system and for more specialist help to be given to people with disabilities.

The report is based on data from more than 500 people with a range of physical and mental health problems. Of the respondents, 61% had a mental health problem, while 5% had a learning disability. All respondents had been assigned to the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) having applied for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). People in the WRAG can have their benefits stopped if they do not engage with work preparation schemes.

Further reading: Government’s Work Programme “failing to deliver for disabled people”, says Scope

Most respondents had been compelled to undertake compulsory back-to-work activities or have their benefits cut. The majority said their disabilities were not acknowledged or accommodated and made engaging in such activities difficult. Also, 80% of people said they felt anxious about not being able to access activities and 70% were worried about their benefits being cut.

The actual or threatened cutting of benefits is meant to motivate people to get back to work, but the report suggests motivation is not a problem. Of the respondents, 60% were strongly committed to work, 30% weren’t sure they could work and just 10%t either didn’t want to, or didn’t think they’d be able to, work. For 90% of people their health or impairment was the main barrier to work.

Lack of specialist support
The report, which has been endorsed by 18 organisations including Mencap, RNIB, Parkinson’s UK and the National Autistic Society, also found:
• Most people received generic back-to-work support such as CV writing classes with very few receiving specialist support. More than half the respondents felt their ‘action plan’ of activities was inappropriate for them, and 6 in 10 felt no adaptations were made to activities to take account of their barriers
• Almost all respondents were threatened with sanctions if they failed to participate in mandatory activities. On average, respondents had at least three different kinds of difficulty in participating in activities due to their health condition or impairment. Half said these difficulties were not acknowledged and 70% said no adjustments were made to accommodate their disability
• 87% of respondents who failed to participate in a mandatory activity were prevented by factors relating to their health or impairment. Only 6.5% had actually received a cut in benefits
• The majority of respondents wanted to work given the right support and a job suitable to their disability, and that they believed employers could make use of their talents if jobs were more inclusive. 82% of respondents said their Work Programme provider or JCP made no effort to adapt jobs on offer to make it easier for them to work
• Most people agreed the most helpful would be a package of support agreed upfront so that they could reassure potential employers of their ability to do a job. Adjustments that employers could make included flexible hours, working from home, working fewer than 16 hours per week, increased confidence on the part of employers and recruitment through work trials rather than interviews.

Difficulties ignored
The report was produced by Catherine Hale, a Work Programme service user, with support from mental health charity Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform. Catherine currently claims ESA due to myalgic encephalopathy (ME).

“The majority of disabled people want to work,” she said. “However, people who have been awarded ESA have genuine and often severe health problems which make it difficult to access employment. The current system ignores these difficulties, and relies on the threat of sanctions to get people into work. It is no surprise that it is not only failing disabled people but causing additional distress and anxiety, on top of the barriers that they already face.

“At my first back to work meeting, the Jobcentre adviser accused me of fraud and threatened to stop my benefits if I didn’t try harder to get well. They assume that people are not working because of defective attitudes and morals, not because they’re ill or disabled. This is wrong and deeply damaging.

“People claiming ESA need to be placed with specialist organisations experienced in supporting disabled people into employment, not into mainstream welfare-to-work schemes. Employers should widen job opportunities and consider making adjustments to accommodate people with disabilities including flexible or shorter working hours and the option of working from home.”

Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at Mind, added: “This report adds to the existing evidence that the current benefits system is failing people with disabilities and mental health problems. There is far too much focus on pressuring people into undertaking compulsory activities, and not nearly enough on-going, tailored support to help them into an appropriate job.

“Just 5% of people are actually managing to get into work through this process, while many people are finding that the stress they are put under is making their health worse and a return to work less likely. We urgently need to see an overhaul of this system.”