Nikki Bond, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Threatening benefit sanctions isn’t the way to help people with mental health problems into work

22 September 2022

Tomorrow, the government is expected to announce plans to tighten the rules for in-work benefit claimants in an effort to reduce shortages in the jobs market. It is anticipated that people who have been deemed fit-for-work and who are working less than 15 hours a week will be required to take steps to increase their earnings or face sanctions. For claimants experiencing mental health problems, these changes risk placing increased pressure on people who are already struggling, exacerbating mental health problems and pushing people further away from the labour market. Efforts to fill vacancies and get more people into work need to look past these blunt policies. 

The government needs to invest in a properly supported benefits and Statutory Sick Pay system, and early support for people’s mental health – which would likely prove more effective in supporting people to return to work and increase their hours. 

Working part-time to manage mental health problems

Previously, benefit claimants working over nine hours a week were not required to look for additional work to increase their earnings. This new policy, expected to come into force in early 2023, will require anyone working less than 15 hours a week to take steps to increase their earnings or have their benefits cut.

While many people experiencing mental health problems are not required to work, thousands of people are carefully managing their mental health by working part-time – striking a balance between working and ensuring their mental health remains stable. Increasing the threshold of hours worked risks disrupting this fine balance and pushing many people with mental health problems to take on more than they can manage. 

“I claim universal credit to supplement earned income, so my claimant commitment is all about trying to find more work – even though I have several “gig” type jobs. I really struggled with this, and it is a constant pressure.” Expert by experience

Our research last year found that people with mental health problems were already over-represented in low-paying and part-time work – due to balancing their work and health needs, as well as challenges in the labour market in securing suitable employment that met their needs.

Work coach support for people with mental health problems

Claimants who are not working 15 hours or more will be required to meet regularly with their work coach and evidence the active steps they’re taking to increase their earnings. Meetings with work coaches are intended to be personalised and supportive. However, our research found that coaches were often not sufficiently trained to meet the needs of people with mental health problems, nor how mental health problems can impact a person’s ability to find, retain or progress in work.

“It took a while to hammer home the message that I was working part-time because of my mental health, and so I wasn’t going to be looking for more work. Eventually, they stopped bugging me and put very few requirements in my commitment.” Expert by experience

Therefore, without the right training to tailor their approach to people’s individual needs, there is little reassurance that work coaches will systematically correctly identify those claimants who must be exempt from requirements to increase their hours.

Policies that drive fear and exacerbate mental health problems

Threats of sanctions to people with mental health problems are not the best way to raise employment, and often cause more problems than they resolve. People frequently tell us how, instead of motivating them to look for work or comply with various conditions, threats of sanctions drive anxiety and fear – and exacerbate mental health problems – pushing people further away from being ‘work ready’.

“I was in work, so it only says I have to keep them updated on any changes. I was very anxious about it though as I thought they might try to make me increase my hours, which I can’t cope with.” Expert by experience

Blanket policies such as this are blunt instruments that fail to engage with the nuance of people’s lives. People with mental health problems require mental health support to recover and a welfare system which supports them to find good-quality work well suited to their needs. Without this, policy changes such as this risk pushing those already hanging on by a thread to poorer mental health and further away from the labour market.