Work is good for your health – should we cheer or circle the wagons?

Encouraging more sick and disabled people to find work could be good for their health, Iain Duncan Smith said yesterday. But what does the evidence say? Helen Barnard takes a look.

Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech yesterday about increasing the number of disabled people in work. He argued that work is good for our health and that the current Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) system damagingly divides people into those who can and cannot work, whereas many people could do some work if they were given the right support.

There is evidence that work is generally good for health. But a major proviso to this, highlighted in the NHS summary of the evidence, is that this is only the case if you have a ‘good job’ which is defined as being “safe, fair, secure, fulfilling, supportive and accommodating”.

The Government has set a target of halving the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people. This could help the high percentage of disabled people who want to work but don’t have a job. Research from Scope, published last year, also showed that getting one million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion.

But progress over the last few years has been slow and the evidence shows that the Work Programme, designed to help long-term unemployed people find work, has not provided the support that ESA claimants need. To change this, it is also important to improve links between health and employment services to help people manage their conditions and improve work prospects.

Scope’s report laid out detailed recommendations for improving disabled people’s employment, including improving flexibility at work and employers’ attitudes towards disabled employees and investing in more specialist employment advisors for disabled people. Iain Duncan Smith’s speech highlighted the problems arising from employers’ reluctance to employ disabled people and cited the ‘Disability Confident’ campaign as part of his response to that. His response to the poor quality of support received by many disabled people is the new Fit to Work Service launched in July. This voluntary service is available through GPs and employers and could help many people to stay in work when they become ill. However, the future of specialist support within Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme is still unclear.

Poverty is already higher among households with disabled people than those without, and the most recent poverty figures showed a rise in poverty among disabled people, now at its highest level since 1998. April’s Budget introduced cuts to the benefits provided to people entering the ‘Work Related Activity’ ESA group in the future, and there are long-standing concerns about the performance of Atos, the company that assessed disabled people for benefit receipt.

Iain Duncan Smith’s speech did not set out detailed policy reforms but some fear that it may be a precursor to more cuts in benefits or other support for disabled people. It is important that any further changes are designed and implemented in a fair way that has credibility with disabled people. But if the speech is the start of a real drive to change how employers act and give better support for disabled people, this could be a step towards more people being able to get jobs and stay in work, which could have a positive impact on their health as well as reducing poverty.