Mental Health and Disability in the Workplace

Fair Start Scotland

Mental Health and Disability in the Workplace

Scotland’s inclusive employment initiatives

The new Employability in Scotland initiative, which is a product of the recently devolved employment services in Scotland, aims to get more people with disabilities and health conditions back into work.

In order to achieve these goals, the Scottish Government will introduce the ‘Fair Start Scotland’ programme from April 2018 in an attempt to harness work opportunities that are “flexible, tailored and responsive to the needs of Scotland’s unemployed” and match these to people currently on state benefits.

A specific element of these initiatives purports to help people with disabilities and mental and physical health conditions to either remain in work or access work that will accommodate their particular requirements.

Concerns and Issues

Although initiatives that help people to find supportive workplaces are laudable and welcome, there are a number of concerns around the “right fit” of work opportunities for those taking part. One specific concern is for those with a fluctuating condition who require a high level of flexibility in order to self-manage their condition and also whether workplaces are ready and able to accommodate this very basic necessity.

Another concern is around the service partners that will form the employability pipeline and whether they are private companies for profit or organisations with a social enterprise or community interest ethic. If these organisations are profit driven they may well be tempted to manoeuvre people into jobs that are inappropriate or unsustainable. Clients may be managed to stay in these jobs for only as long as the government paid retention bonuses are valid. Once someone falls out of these posts they are often sanctioned and their benefit support is withdrawn. We have seen this all before, where people are left stranded, frightened and insecure and where the mental health charities, food banks, citizen’s advice and advocacy services are inundated with desperate people. This short-sighted attitude to target driven employment programmes seems to be persistent and deeply entrenched in bureaucratic and business circles.

Person-centred approach

A fresh approach with person-centred services and humanely designed jobs is urgently needed and could have a massive impact on employment retention and on the long-term quality of life for people living with challenging conditions. If participants on these employment programmes can attain job satisfaction and sustainable productivity levels then everyone is a winner. If the words, ‘flexible leave’, ‘duvet days’, ‘flexible hours’ and ‘work/life balance’ don’t meet with an organisation’s human resource policies then they should not be considered an appropriate employer for these schemes. The inflexibility of the traditional workplace has often been the primary cause of people’s inability to stay in work in the first place.

Flexible options and self-employment

Although these programmes have started, they will take a few years to get properly up and running and show results. During this time, we hope the principals will ensure that the right options are available to people who require a high degree of flexibility and autonomy in their working lives and who may in fact be uniquely suited to a supported, self-employment mode of working. As things stand, starting a micro-business or setting up as a freelancer attracts very little real support and much overbearing bureaucratic control, not to mention an extraordinarily short time frame in which to generate a sustainable income. So, people that would do well as independent traders, possibly working from home and generating a small, sustainable income are discouraged by the innumerable hoops and barriers. These begin with the application process itself through to the restrictive conditions set by government departments that are both fearful and lacking in imagination.

The reality is that most workplaces are just not ready for the wave of scared, reluctant and disillusioned people they are to be saddled with when the initiative starts to bite and the understandable gulf between an organisation’s needs and the individual’s may be a bridge too far. Hence the cycle of unemployment, benefit dependency and ill heath may prevail for many and another great opportunity will have been lost.

Written by MHScot Team Member, Sonia Last

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