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.

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