Redesigning employment support to help not hinder

Peer Researcher Gary Coyle reflects on his involvement in the Work Well project and how it compared to his own jobhunting experiences

Gary Coyle

In the past, the Jobcentre told me that I needed to do a one-year training course called ‘Restart’ in order to continue receiving benefits. After I deducted the cost of travel and lunches, the extra £10.00 I received each week was almost gone.

I was based in a church and required to be onsite, working, until the end of the day, even when there was very little to do there. It was pointless, humiliating and boring but it kept the unemployment statistics lower as I was listed as being in training rather than unemployed.

Getting involved in Work Well

Years later, I went with Dan, my manager at McPin, to Elephant & Castle in South London to speak to some people who had used the Work Well service – a scheme to help people with mental health difficulties find work, which McPin was evaluating.

We were first welcomed by the friendly staff and given a separate room, which was soon filled with people who were keen to share their experiences of the service.

I briefly introduced myself as a ‘peer researcher’ – a researcher who has lived experience of the topic. I am doing this through Permitted Work, while receiving disability benefits.

Permitted Work is an adaptation to Disability Benefit which lets a person earn up to a set amount on top of their benefit. It must be no more than the limited number of hours and seen as therapeutic to the disability.

The group we spoke to had not met each other before, as all the input from Work Well staff had been delivered one-to-one. One client in particular showed interest in Permitted Work, which he had never heard of. I would never have known it was an option either – it was through a conversation with a friend that I became aware, as it has never been well publicised.

I spent some time discussing Permitted Work with him. This man had found employment for a short time through Work Well but had to stop due to a recurring past injury. He was keen to find other work which was less physically demanding.

The contrast between the forceful approach of my experience with the Jobcentre compared to the gentle and supportive guidance given by Work Well was clear.

Positive feedback on the services

There was no service like Work Well when I was first diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. I was put on disability benefits and pretty much left to get on with it. I kept busy by studying at undergraduate and MA levels before finding work as a Peer Researcher with McPin.

Every client who used Work Well gave positive feedback on their involvement with the project and said they were happy with the services they received. The staff had supported them to build confidence through providing practical, real-life scenarios and giving help writing CVs and completing job applications.

It was a well-planned scheme which was flexible to clients’ individual needs. It also continued to provide support for some months after people had found employment, giving clients the confidence needed to settle into the working environment.

Ongoing stigma around mental illness

I have noticed from my personal experience that there is often an unrealistic idea held by the public and users of mental health services that finding work will solve all their problems. Work can be the beginning of a whole new set of problems and some people are not able to cope with this. This can be overwhelming and sometimes does more harm than good, which is why employment support services like Work Well are key.

One observation which made me uncomfortable is that some people were advised not to mention they had a mental illness at the interview stage, but to wait until after they had been offered a job. I found this upsetting because it shows how much stigma is still attached to mental illness.

This is not a criticism of the Work Well team, but it highlights that there is a lack of understanding of mental health in the wider world. This is a shame because there is so much information now available to educate employers on how to support people using mental health services, yet people are still being made to lie about who they are to find meaningful work. I feel this is detrimental to people living with mental ill-health.

Value not easily measured

This was a temporary project and was dependent on funding to continue. Work Well still exists, but in a different guise to the project we evaluated. Some clients were worried about the project ending because it had helped so many people. The real value of this kind of work cannot be easily measured.

One of the great things about the original Work Well project was that it was not based in an NHS building. It was under a railway arch, in a neutral venue and easily accessible. After it finished, several of the staff moved to similar employment advisor roles in local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) settings.

Personally, I do not think this would be as effective. Replicating a service like Work Well in a more traditional NHS setting would be very difficult.

It was interesting to be involved in this evaluation, from the workshop at the beginning to writing up the report, as well as helping with the face-to-face meetings and telephone interviews, transcribing of interviews, and learning more about the planning, mechanics and purpose of Work Well. It has been an insightful learning experience.

The same support for all

It was a shame that only those with mental health problems could access Work Well. If all people were given the same support, respect and guidance when looking for work, the world could be a better and happier place.

Finding work is important to all, and I believe a lot can be learnt from Work Well to help others without a diagnosis. Instead, the average person is made to search alone and apply for a set number of jobs every fortnight to receive benefits.

With so many people applying for every job it is demanding, disheartening and impossible for some people to comply with these rules to receive unemployment benefits and survive while out of work.

I believe this is one of the reasons we have so many people begging and homeless. The safety net of entitlement to benefits has been tied up in red tape, and it is now impossible for many people to access the help they should be getting.

The unemployment process really needs to be redesigned to suit the times we live in. Read the full Work Well report for more on this.

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Gary Coyle is a Peer Researcher at McPin.