Stigma: One of the greatest barriers to employment

If we are to help people into employment we need to remove the stigma around substance misuse treatment, make a real effort to tackle barriers, and provide empathetic education, training and employment (ETE) support to both employees and employers. Local Authorities and other public bodies must take a leading role in providing employment opportunities.

People enter substance misuse treatment with a wide range of health and social needs. These need to be addressed alongside building motivation and aspiration for sustainable change.

Stigma is one of the greatest barriers to employment for those who have completed treatment or who are in treatment for drug and alcohol use. The double whammy of belonging to a group of people that is stigmatised is that those affected begin to believe the messages that they encounter everyday. While two thirds of employers would not employ someone who had a history of heroin or crack use*, many of those with a history of substance misuse believe they would not be employed either. There is an urgent need to develop employment ‘in-reach’** and other initiatives to provide employers with the confidence to employ people with a history of drug and alcohol misuse.

The journey for many people towards good health, recovery and being ready for employment is often slow. New skills need to be learnt and old habits left behind. At the point of accessing treatment for drug and alcohol misuse, people often have a wide range of physical and mental health issues which are often compounded by a myriad of social problems. It may take an extended period of time for people learn or re-learn softer but essential skills such as communication alongside building self-confidence/esteem. This is alongside getting treatment for physical and mental health conditions including their drug and alcohol use.

Some people have either no housing or insecure housing. This alone is a barrier to employment since employers require an address. Conversely housing is difficult to secure without a job therefore a vicious circle operates which continually pushes people further away from mainstream society.

Many people using a Blenheim ETE service were left feeling ashamed and stigmatised when accessing Job Centre Plus. They also reported that “work programmes are too intense” and as a result those who are either “not in treatment and/or subject to easements” struggle to keep up with the rigors of the programme and are therefore at risk of losing benefits. This can result in a return to the old pattern of offending and re-offending. There was a general consensus amongst the groups that the Job Centre wasn’t very helpful and the atmosphere was often poor.

In contrast people using specialist ETE services, felt they were good, offering the opportunity to get onto courses, gave an incentive to change and helped people think about and prepare for employment as they resolved or came to terms with other issues.

We are looking for employers in London to provide volunteer, employment and training opportunities for our service users. If you or know anyone that can help please contact us.

Blenheim has ETE services in Redbridge, Lewisham, and Kensington and Chelsea.

*Getting Serious about Stigma: The problem with stigmatising drug users UKDPC 2010

**In-Reach means where employees starting work with a history of drug or alcohol use are provided with additional support in the work place, as are their employers, to overcome any anxiety they have about employing those with a history of drug and alcohol problems.


Offer support not stigma

With the Black review looking at alcohol, drugs, obesity and welfare (including the possibility of sanctioning the benefits) it is hard not to see this as an outrageous attempt to stigmatise people whose lives are often difficult enough. Many have recognised physical and mental health conditions underlying their drug, alcohol and obesity. This is often compounded by deprivation and a lack of social capital. Many are too ill, too old, or lack the skills necessary to enter the workforce. I do not believe that it is right to sanction people’s benefits where they do not access treatment.

I do believe that Government and the drug and alcohol sector need to seriously consider whether and how more people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and those in recovery can be supported into sustainable employment something many are desperate to achieve.

A chaotic lifestyle is common for many in treatment for problem drug and alcohol use and most are far from ready for employment.  Many are unlikely to have experience of recent employment and so are detached from the labour market. They often face a series of additional issues at the beginning of the process of recovery, such as managing their addiction and the associated health problems, and a lack of stable accommodation, all of which may hinder the gaining of employment.

One of the central aims of the treatment system I believe needs to be to help people resolve these problems and where possible assist them to become ‘job ready’ whilst acknowledging that gaining and sustaining employment is unlikely to be successful unless the primary issues are addressed and there is evidence of stability.

The Work Programme and its Payment by Results funding has resulted in a focus on those easiest to get back into the workplace whilst those furthest from being ready to enter the job market are often parked with little support. Specific services working with drug and alcohol misusers around employment and training were an early casualty of the Works Programme as were many services commissioned by the treatment system to address employment issues.

There is in my view a clear consensus about what is required (see UK Drug Policy Commission) to assist drug and alcohol users to re-enter the workplace or in some cases enter for the first time.

  1. Treatment for physical and mental health problems
  2. Building motivation and aspirations
  3. Stabilise drug use
  4. Provide appropriate stable accommodation
  5. Develop soft skills e.g. through volunteering
  6. Formal training and skills development
  7. Work trials and job placements
  8. In-work support

Given the recovery agenda and the importance of employment in sustaining recovery I believe that employment support and ETE advisors should be part of drug and alcohol treatment provision and commissioned as such, rather than part of wider DWP initiatives such as the Works Programme. Many drug and alcohol charities run excellent such services but such initiatives remain rare. Current employment initiatives via the Works Programme fail Blenheim’s beneficiaries and where we are able to get people job ready do not seem to be able to deliver employment.

There are two clear challenges in getting more service users into employment

‘Job-readiness’ – an individual’s beliefs and feelings about their readiness for work;

‘Employability’ – employers’ perceptions of the suitability for employment of individual jobseekers

Until the Government puts pressure onto employers to ring fence placements for disadvantaged people, then our service users will continue to face an up hill battle and further disappointment.  Perhaps local authorities and public services should be expected to offer employment opportunities for those seeking re-entry into the labour market or it could be a condition on agencies taking public sector contracts.

Many will need significant help in overcoming some of the common barriers to being job ready which include:

  • low levels of education or skills;
  • poor physical or mental health;
  • evidence of multiple forms of deprivation;
  • gaps in provision of support services;
  • personal and presentation barriers;
  • and interpersonal barriers

There are significant dangers of rushing people back in to employment too soon becoming ‘job ready’ incorporates a range of factors, from primary issues of stabilising drug/alcohol use and accommodation, and related health issues, to re-engaging with the labour market, including volunteering, to build up a CV and a skills base.Helping people develop a positive and realistic attitude to work, through building confidence and motivation (e.g. undergoing training, volunteering etc.), is an important task for services. It is important to provide practical support in the search for employment along with aftercare support to help sustain employment.Currently recruitment processes are used in different ways to manage these perceived risks. This can range from ‘blanket’ recruitment policies that rule out employing those with a history of problematic substance misuse, through to a more discerning individual approach. A central concern is whether an individual is ‘fit for the job’ in terms of being reliable, capable and punctual.

Any worthwhile ETE programme needs to have an Employment Engagement worker who can job broker for those returning to work and carve out local employers to get on board and contacting employers directly for clients on an individual basis, selling it as a free recruitment service for people we know and have worked with for a long time. It will be important to negotiate work placements to give people and employers an opportunity to see if it will work out or to provide valuable experience for the CV.

The active engagement of willing local employers to offer work placements and employment opportunities is crucial. There is an on-going need to allay the fears of employers who are generally reluctant to take on potentially ‘risky’ job applicants. The development of in-work support packages would greatly assist with this.

There needs to be a process of matching the expectations between people and those helping them with ETE regarding suitable employment. This will include the need to recognise that health and drug status along with education, age and experience will play a fundamental part in the types and number of job opportunities available.

There remains a lack of access to specialist support for drug and alcohol users, services need to incorporate ‘specialist trained ETE workers’ in the field as part of the treatment system not something to refer onto

There is a need to create an ‘appropriate’ ETE environment to aid with employment search/links. Work programmes are not set up to deal with our client group, JCP does not have the time or resources and staff in most drugs and alcohol agencies are not skilled or equipped or tasked to deal with this area whilst clients are  in treatment.

DWP, Government and local authority have a responsibility to put pressure on employers to ring fence work placements and offer work based apprenticeships.  Some ex-offender charities and organisations have made huge progress in this area.

Stigmatising people who are overweight, or have drink and/or drugs problems does little to improve their employment prospects.  Instead providing targeted ETE support and finding supportive employers to offer opportunities for employment provides a positive and potentially much more effective response.