Our work commonly sits within the intersections of different areas including health, employability, housing, and poverty. Considering issues at the point that they intersect with others can often shed light into ways to approach some of the more intractable challenges in policy and service provision. In the spirit of intersection, we have teamed up with Clara Mascaro, a former Rocket Scientist and current PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, to explore how considering employment and health alongside each other makes it clear that the quality of the job is paramount.
For me, this interest stems from our work with those who are unemployed and the services that offer support to them. People I’ve talked to have often commented on how their unemployment has contributed to their poor health, reduced life satisfaction and feelings of social exclusion. Their experiences are supported by an increasing body of literature that demonstrates how being in good employment can improve individual health and wellbeing and a growing understanding of ill health’s hidden economic cost.
In 2019, the UK government reported that 131 million working days were lost to sickness absences, and it was estimated that sickness and worklessness costs the UK economy approximately £100 billion annually. These findings are pertinent given that nearly a third (31%) of all working age people in the UK report a long-term health condition.
In addition, there is currently a significant gap between employment rates for those with disabilities (51.7%) and those without (81.7%).
As people live and work for longer, the number of those with a long-term health condition or disability both in and out of work is likely to increase.
Helping people with long-term conditions and disabilities stay in work for longer or find employment can have a significant positive impact on both individuals and the wider economy. So far, the challenge seems simple: “there are a number of people who aren’t in work who would benefit from employment, so let’s get them into jobs!”.
However, we see the challenge as more nuanced than this. Evidence has shown that “bad work” (low-paid, insecure, with low autonomy over tasks, resulting in low satisfaction) can actually have negative effects on a person’s health. This stands in contrast to the positive effects that good work (work that is well paid, secure, autonomous, with a good work life balance and opportunities to directly participate in organisational decisions) can have.
So, moving those with health conditions and disabilities into any job won’t guarantee individual and economic benefits – it may even exacerbate the problem. With this in mind we can reframe the challenge from: “How do we help those who are disabled or have long term health conditions stay in or find employment?” to “what can we do to make sure that the work that’s on offer is good quality?”.
When thought of in this way, we can see that both employers and employability services have a part to play in ensuring this challenge is met.
What can employers do?
The social model of disability states that people are disabled not by their impairments or health conditions, but by structural, environmental and attitudinal barriers in society. Adopting this perspective with regards to work and health puts more of an onus on employers to make workspaces more inclusive. Examples include making reasonable adjustments, job carving (tailoring jobs to make them suitable to specific workers), promoting flexible working practices and implementing accessible recruitment processes. However, employers – particularly smaller employers – often lack the knowledge or capacity to make these changes and need help to improve their ‘employerability’.