When Richard was on the Work Programme he didn't know if he was the only one who felt it wasn't working. Eventually, he found he wasn't alone.
Although I had often felt like complaining about the WP, I had no real idea to whom I should take my complaint, or whether I would be justified in doing so.
My two years on the Work Programme (WP) left me feeling bruised, ignored and deeply disillusioned. The flagship programme to help people on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) with mental health problems had not only completely failed to help me find any work, it had considerably exacerbated my mental health problems – more stress, intensified anxiety, increased dread. I felt that my mental health problems, from which I had suffered since I was a teenager, had been casually and humiliatingly dismissed. When I was finally placed in the ESA Support Group, I was so thankful that I would be spared such an unpleasant and demoralising experience for the foreseeable future.
Although I had often felt like complaining about the WP, I had no real idea to whom I should take my complaint, or whether I would be justified in doing so. Perhaps, I thought, there were many people with mental health problems who had undergone a wholly positive experience; people who had been treated with respect and consideration; people who had managed, with focussed and personalised support, to move into appropriate and rewarding employment. Was it just me?
Then I came across a report entitled Fulfilling Potential – ESA and the Fate of the Work-related Activity Group, written by Catherine Hale, and publicised on Mind's website. It was a revelation. Catherine's experiences chimed so uncannily with mine that it was if, at times, I had written it myself. I was so thankful for the report's validation of my own experience but I was also filled with anger and disappointment that so many other people were undergoing such a dispiriting and wholly inappropriate experience.
This report was the spur for me to arrange to see my local MP and discuss how the WP was clearly totally failing, not only for people with mental health problems but people with any form of disability. My MP was encouragingly sympathetic and wrote letters to the DWP and the WP provider. In the meantime, I completed a survey on the WP on Mind's website. There certainly seemed to be far more publicity about the WP's failings, allied with increasing concern at the number of people being sanctioned for not complying with the WP's conditions.
After completing the survey, I was contacted by Mind to see if I would be willing to be one of the case-studies in a new report it was compiling on back-to-work support, including the Work Programme. After an initial wariness, I agreed as it seemed clear the only way for the WP to improve would be if the experiences of people who had been through it were publicised and investigated. When the report was published, Mind inquired if I would also be willing to perform some media interviews. Again, my first reaction was one of extreme caution, if not downright fear – would public criticism of the WP affect my current benefits? Would I be interrogated with forensic Paxmanesque ruthlessness on every aspect of my life and my mental health? Would I even be subjected to public ridicule and derision?
I talked to Mind's media and campaigns teams about my fears and they helped me tremendously with their help and advice. I agreed to do the interviews and I am unreservedly glad that I did. I received some lovely compliments from family and friends which helped to boost my fragile self-confidence. More importantly, the publicity helped to keep the issue of the WP and mental health on the public agenda. I have since given a presentation, with Mind, on my experience to DWP staff and again received some gratifyingly positive responses.
I am so pleased Mind is continuing to keep the WP on the politicians' radar as it is a vitally important issue to so many people; people who often feel unheard, marginalised, and denigrated. The report received deserved praise and will hopefully form the basis of a whole new approach to helping people with mental health problems, both in and out of employment.
On a personal note, I have found becoming involved in Mind's campaign very beneficial and rewarding. I now feel that I can actually do something to help other people and to ensure that the WP eventually works well for all people with mental health issues. It has boosted my self-esteem and made me think that, perhaps, I do have a future and that I can contribute something to society, however small that contribution may be. The campaign continues and I will help to realise its fruition in whatever way I can.