Last month, the following letter was sent to the Independent, titled The DWP must see that a bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment:
“We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.
Findings from the National Audit Office (NAO) show limited evidence that the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective.
But, even more worrying, we see evidence from NHS Health Scotland, the Centre for Welfare Conditionality hosted by the University of York, and others, which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems. This is also emphasised in the recent Public Accounts Committee report, which states that the unexplained variations in the use of benefits sanctions are unacceptable and must be addressed.
Vulnerable people with multiple and complex needs, in particular, are disproportionately affected by the increased use of sanctions.
Therefore, we call on the Government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
But suspending the sanctions system alone is not enough. We believe the Government also has to change its focus from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive – which means a wholesale review of the back to work system.
We want to see a range of policy changes to promote mental health and wellbeing. These include increased mental health awareness training for Jobcentre staff – and reform of the work capability assessment (WCA), which may be psychologically damaging, and lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness.
We urge the Government to rethink the Jobcentre’s role from not only increasing employment, but also ensuring the quality of that employment, given that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.
This should be backed up with the development of statutory support for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.
These policies would begin to take us towards a welfare and employment system that promotes mental health and wellbeing, rather than one that undermines and damages it.
Professor Peter Kinderman, President, British Psychological Society (BPS)
Martin Pollecoff, Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
Dr Andrew Reeves, Chair, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
Helen Morgan, Chair, British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)
Steve Flatt, Trustee, British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)”
“Making work pay” for whom?
It’s a draconian, crude behaviourist and armchair technocratic government that would claim to “make work pay” by decreasing social security support for the poorest members of society, rather than raising wages to meet the rising costs of living. This approach was justified by claims that poor people became “dependent” on benefits because the welfare state provides “perverse incentives” for people seeking employment. However, there is no empirical evidence of these claims. Keith Joseph, a leading New Right advocate of the welfare dependency theories, set out to try and establish evidence dependency during the Thatcher era, and failed. Both Thatcher and Joseph wanted to extend Victorian bourgeois values of thrift, self-reliance and charity among all classes.
Such an approach has benefitted no-one but wealthy employers motivated by a profit incentive, as people who are out of work or claiming disability related benefits have become increasingly desperate. These imposed conditions have created a reserve army of labour, which has subsequently served to devalue labour, and drive wages down. We now witness high levels of in-work poverty, too. The Victorian Poor Law principle of less eligibility had the same consequences, and also “made work pay.” It’s shameful that in 2017, the government still believe that it is somehow effective and appropriate to punish people into not being poor. Especially when the government’s own policies are constructing inequality and poverty.
Last week I wrote about the Samaritans report: Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour, which strongly links socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality with psychological distress and suicidal behaviours. The report reiterates that countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.
Research has consistently found that in countries with a generous social safety net, poor employment (low pay, poor conditions, job insecurity short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. This is particularly true of neoliberal states with minimal and means tested welfare regimes. It seems health and wellbeing are contingent on the degree to which individuals, or families, can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation, and on the kind of social stratification (socioeconomic hierarchies indicating levels of inequality) is fostered by social policies.
Furthermore, despite the government’s rhetoric on welfare “dependency”, and the alleged need for removing the “perverse incentives” from the social security system by imposing a harsh conditionality framework and a compliance regime – using punitive sanctions – and work capability assessments designed to preclude eligibility to disability benefits, research shows that generous social security regimes make people more likely to want to work, not less.
The government’s welfare “reforms” have already invited scathing international criticism because they have disproportionately targeted cuts at those with the least income. Furthermore, the government have systematically violated the human rights of those with mental and physical disabilities. In a highly critical UN report last year, following a lengthy inquiry, it says: “States parties should find an adequate balance between providing an adequate level of income security for persons with disabilities through social security schemes and supporting their labour inclusion. The two sets of measures should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.”
However, the UK government have continued to conflate social justice and inclusion with punitive policies and cuts, aimed at coercing disabled people towards narrow employment outcomes that preferably bypass any form of genuine support and the social security system completely.