Work help for disabled Scots

What do you think? • Are the answers for people facing complex work barriers similar in both Scotland and England? • Does good employability support focus on clients’ characteristics/needs or commissioning/contractual considerations? • Is Scotland about to change the face of employability support?

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on “Creating a fairer Scotland – Employability Support: a discussion paper” that particularly addresses unemployed people with complex work barriers including disability.

As someone with long experience of supporting disabled people back to work, my main concern with the paper is that it tends to focus on the structures, commissioning etc of employment support rather than the people it seeks to assist.  To look at the support from the client’s perspective,   they will want to know exactly what they can expect (hence standardisation rather than black box variation), what benefits they can expect (e.g. getting a job/self-employment, getting training, improving their health etc), what information will be requested and how it will be used, how long the support will last, the complaint process, what happens if they don’t take part etc.  Essentially, good employment support works when the unemployed person is seen and treated as a valued customer rather than a case generating income for the provider.

All the structural considerations are important, of course, but should be invisible to the customer who should receive the same quality of support regardless of circumstances.  For people at the margins, the ethos of empathy and care can be critical – hence this needs to be more strongly emphasised alongside all the structural considerations.

  1. Complex, multiple work barriers need holistic support.

For most disabled people, their impairment alone is rarely the main barrier to their employment.   Long-term unemployed people will usually be facing other difficulties – some practical (finances, housing, health, personal circumstances), some emotional/attitudinal (lack of confidence, aspiration, motivation), some lack of information/access to a choice of employment support.

We created the Help to Work model based on Mazlo’s Hierarchy of Needs to describe the building blocks needed for successful transition to work.  The model can be used as a supported self-assessment tool for individuals to identify their needs – too often they are the subjects of assessments rather than empowered to undertake themselves.  The model also offers a level of standardisation: the range of support that should be available to any unemployed/economically inactive person – with varying levels of take-up at each stage.

We extended the model to include in-work activities to increase sustainable employability: creating resilience to overcome future life events (e.g. redundancy, onset of ill-health) to maintain work prospects.  This links to the EU “Flexicurity” concept.

  1. Single employment support providers will rarely be able to deliver effective, specialist holistic support – but partnerships can.

Our Help to Work partnership draws together organisations (national and local) able to deliver various elements of the model.  So, for example, there are over 40 providers delivering in one Local Authority area (see and click on Organisations).  Between them, the partners cover each of the back-to-work building blocks with their own specialist expertise.

Creating such a partnership is more than just a directory of their activities.  Joint events, meetings and information sharing help front-line practitioners understand the opportunities available for their clients – and provide the mutual trust and confidence to make referrals.  Training across partners’ delivery teams builds their capacity and knowledge to support those with additional needs e.g. disabled people.

Hence joint delivery, consortia etc can be useful but will only achieve full effectiveness if managed as partnerships  – with partners having parity of roles and responsibilities (as reflected by the EU PARES initiative).

  1. Local delivery recognises the local cultures, labour market and community.

People facing most work barriers are often those least likely to have either the confidence or means to travel far (or at all) to receive employment support.  They need delivery that is very local (and often in their own homes) at least at the outset.  Delivery organisations that parachute in teams for delivery at “central” locations are far less likely to achieve the community penetration (or credibility) needed.  Alongside, providers need detailed understanding of the local economy: there is little benefit in helping people become self-employed if no-one locally can afford their goods/services, nor is there any point delivering training that doesn’t match the forecast of job vacancies.

Employment support also needs to take account of the working history of the area: IT opportunities may have little attraction to unemployed men from a background of heavy industry.

  1. Unemployment may have become the “status quo” – changing improving outcomes is more than writing good CVs.”

People who have multiple work barriers have often learned to accept their lot – and it has become a place of safety with limited risk.    They are likely to be highly resistant to change even if others perceive that change will bring tangible benefits.  These unemployed people will give more weight to retaining their current security and will discount the benefits.  Change is possible but needs to be very gradual to minimise risk and reduce the need for complex information and decision making.  Transition through a series of non-threatening steps is possible e.g. volunteering, permitted work, work placements, job tasters – so that crossing the line to work is just a natural progression rather than life-changing.

  1. Friends rather than advisers, mentors or coaches.

Many people facing complex work barriers also tend to be socially isolated – they need support from others who see them as whole people rather than prospective “outputs”.    In line with the holistic approach above, these clients need individual one-to-one support from people who are empathetic, caring and interested as well as professional.  Front-line practitioners need the personal characteristics, specialist training and appropriate case loads to make this possible.  They must be able to gain client trust and confidence if they are to have any prospect of overcoming the status quo bias described above.

  1. Self-employment must not be forgotten.

With working disabled people being more likely to be self-employed than non-disabled working people, it is vital that this option is available and fully accessible.  People facing complex barriers (whether their health, caring responsibilities or ethnic backgrounds) still encounter employer prejudice/discrimination so that self-employment can be their only option – and also accommodates their personal circumstances.  Creating micro-businesses can have longer term benefits: some may grow/take on their own employees; others will be stepping stones in to mainstream jobs.

But mainstream business support has been very poor in meeting the needs of these clients – the language alone excludes them.  The New Enterprise Allowance scheme is likewise poorly designed for disabled people – with unrealistic timescales, judgemental assessments and mentors lacking disability awareness.

Instead, specialist, bespoke self-employment support can be highly successful (see our Work for Yourself programmes for disabled people – EMDA 2008; WNF 2009-12; ERDF 2012-15).

  1. Design of employment support.

Too often support has been aimed at the “lowest hanging fruit” – those unemployed people who are quick, easy and economic to move in to jobs and so produce the throughput and outcome payments.  Despite the additional funding that has been available for those with more complex needs through the Work Programme and Work Choice, it is clear that the funding model doesn’t incentivise providers to adequately engage or support more complex clients.  As the economy and employment levels improve, it is clear that the simplistic approach will no longer be useful or applicable to the remaining unemployed and economically inactive people.  A new approach is needed that cuts across benefits (for example, about 25% of JSA claimants are disabled people alongside the majority of ESA/IB claimants plus many IS claimants and many others who have abandoned the benefits system).  To meet the needs of those who are least able to utilise Jobcentres, new design needs to be founded on those with the most complex needs – not the common current approach of one-size-fits-most and there may be some add-ons where possible/required. The Help to Work model offers a possibility.  Not every client will need every intervention – and that alone can be motivating and empowering for individuals – but the holistic structure needs to be in place for all from the outset.

  1. Employment support is a pan-government issue.

Many providers of public services (from health and criminal justice systems through Local Authorities to benefits and Jobcentres) all contribute to the success of employment support – and reap the costs if it fails.  Silo-working within one part of government can simply move problems and costs elsewhere in the public finances.  For example, delays in health treatment can result in disabling impairments and job loss  that places demand on benefits and employment support which, if not successful, results in more requiring treatment for mental health conditions and, for some, criminal justice remedies.  Clarity and commitment across Government is vital.  Equally, assessing “value for money” is a pan-government consideration:  disabled people may take longer to return to work with associated higher costs but simply participating in a programme (as with our Work for Yourself project) can reduce visits to GP surgeries, A&E, hospitals while improving social integration/being more positive about the future – all with cost savings.

  1. Providers’ characteristics.

Regardless of their sector, providers need to be assessed on the basis of their record of delivery to the future client groups, the relative funding allocations to management, overheads and direct delivery, the evidenced capacity of their front-line practitioners.  The legal status, whether charity, private company or other, should not be the decisive factor when contracting delivery.

  1. Disabled people.

We are not confident that the consultation paper adequately recognises the situation of many disabled people:

  • Most will be older.  For example, 23% of those aged 50-65.
  • Most will have worked previously but have lost jobs during their health treatment and/or due to employers’ failure to make reasonable adjustments.
  • Many will have out-dated work skills and/or be unable to return to previous work types.
  • Most will have few/no qualifications and limited IT skills – so re-training can be daunting – even if the training bodies can offer flexible, accessible training.
  • Many will have gained mental health conditions (depression, anxiety, and stress) as a consequence of unemployment/impairment.
  • Many will be living in poverty, rely on benefits, face social isolation and family breakdown.
  • Many will have recurring/additional health problems.
  • Most will not consider themselves to be “disabled” and will not have contact with disability-specific organisations.
  • Many would like to get back to work.

Overall, there is considerable demand for employment support – for example, we receive phone calls from all over the UK when our Work for Yourself clients feature on national TV.  But the range of barriers can be very considerable and need substantial creativity and shared determination to overcome.  This type of ethos and understanding of the target client groups’ needs and barriers should be central to the paper and driving solutions before considering delivery structures, commissioning etc.

The consultation is open until 10 October so there’s still time for you to contribute.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Disability Floristry Art

Disability Floristry Art

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