WCA decisions mean that jobseekers may lose out on vital support

Nicola Oliver is the UK mental health employment support coordinator for Centre for Mental Health.

Last night’s Panorama asked whether the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) tests were  ‘wrongly victimising those who deserve support the most.’

At the Centre we’ve been calling for a “shift towards a more sympathetic and supportive system that takes into account the additional challenges people with mental health problems face and can make a real objective assessment of their needs.”

It’s worth remembering though, that the results of the WCA don’t just affect the  benefits you are entitled to but the level of support you are given to find employment- and that in itself can have devastating consequences.

Work programme providers are paid by results.  Claimants eligible for ESA can earn the work programme provider up to £13,720. Someone who was on incapacity benefit but is moved onto JSA after their WCA earns the work programme provider just £6,600.

Let’s use an example:  ‘George’ – a hypothetical claimant with clinical depression. He has been out of work for over a year. George attends a WCA assessment and  is moved onto JSA. George is assigned to a work programme advisor, called Sharon. Sharon sees 90 people a week. Because Sharon’s targets are high, she only gets to see George 20 minutes every week. Because George is on JSA Sharon’s company will only earn £6,600 if they find him employment. Sharon’s company simply can’t afford to give George the intensive support he needs.

Let’s imagine, in a revised Welfare to Work Programme, that if someone is off work for more than a year with a mental health condition they are considered as having significant barriers to their return to work. Let’s assume that like before, George fails his WCA because he didn’t score enough points. This time he is given intensive support to find a job. George is kept on ESA but he is referred to an employment specialist. The employment specialist will provide time unlimited support to help him find a job, working closely with his clinical team. They will discuss medication with his psychiatrist; help him manage his panic attacks and introduce him to peers with the same diagnosis who are successfully managing their symptoms in work. In short they will do everything from accompanying George to an interview to helping him adjust his medication so that he can get out of bed in the morning.

If we want to increase the return to work rate of people with mental health conditions then we need to provide intensive integrated support. And there are organisations around the UK who successfully support people with mental health conditions into employment.  International research has proven that the most effective support method is Individual Placement with Support, (IPS). In the UK NHS Trusts and other organisations that provide IPS successfully place between 30 and 50% of people with mental health conditions into sustainable employment- more than double the success rates of vocational schemes. These aren’t people with mild depression or anxiety; these are people with severe mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Intensive, holistic, integrated support should be available for everyone with a mental health problem who wants to  work. And if work programme providers are not incentivised to support people with mental health problems to find employment because of the results of their WCA then the people that the work programme was designed to help are simply being set up to fail.