My journey into work
Posted Wednesday 31 August 2011
This is the first in a series of guest blogs by Alison who is about to start working after 13 years on incapacity benefits.
I have been on incapacity benefits for nearly 13 years, supported by health professionals sensitive to letting me progress at my own pace. This year I’ve felt ready for change and wanted to control my own journey into work. I asked my social worker to refer me to a supported employment adviser.
At first I was looking for a plan ‘B’ in case my benefit status ever changed and I felt pushed into 'any job' later on. Working closely with my employment adviser I started to realise I had many talents and deserved to be rewarded in work. Eight months of intensive support and job searching paid off at the beginning of August when I was offered my first job.
Instead of ‘getting back’ into work I am approaching paid employment for the first time in my mid-thirties. I became unwell in my youth due to a serious eating disorder. This experience ended my time at university; pulling the plug on expected milestones of first jobs, colleagues and career development. During recovery it has felt impossible to catch up with others my age who invested their time in careers rather than focusing on intensive treatment.
I used my time out of work productively whenever my health allowed me to do so. My main and first chosen voluntary work was with the Citizens Advice Bureau helping members of the public with their advice problems. The benefits have gone both ways as volunteering introduced me to an excellent organisation which is a strong voice for those in greatest need and for social justice. Colleagues at CAB helped me develop my confidence. Outside of the CAB, I also joined service user involvement forums, speaking on behalf of other service users to decision-makers including NHS Trust chief executives, council officers and social services commissioners.
My supported employment adviser uses the Individual Placement and Support Model which means finding the right job and matching it to the person. She has been a star, encouraging me not to give up despite many rejections, the current stressful conditions in the job market and daunting interviews.
At a time when there is a much greater expectation for people to ‘return to work’ I hope to write a series of blogs for Mind explaining the transition and advocating that this be done with care and respect for personal choice. I am not setting any benchmark or calling for others to do paid work just because I am.
I believe that supported volunteering should be an option for people on benefits and in my role at the CAB I regularly assist people with disabilities to receive their entitlements. I also challenge mental health professionals who assume that recovery means paid employment or a discharge from services - that is recovery being all about someone working again, contributing to society as an employee rather than as a volunteer or family member or someone who needs time to recover from adverse experiences. (Ed's note: Updated 4pm 31 Aug 2011)
I remember how I needed to stay in survival mode for significant lengths of time - I couldn't imagine getting through that week, let alone signing an employment contract. I am writing this at a more hopeful time on a personal level although my anxiety remains high.
For me, planning to start work is exciting, worrying, amazing and a big unknown. It is a relief to come off certain benefits but a great challenge to try alternatives in a society that doesn't always understand mental health. I desperately want to succeed this time and believe that it is the right moment for me to do it.
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