MSD promises WINZ training for mental health clients

SALLY WEBSTER discovers yet another layer of welfare related outrage was heaped on the British government yesterday. The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies issued a press release stating they’d caught on to the proposal to use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in British job centers, and they wouldn’t be having a bar of it.

The proposal comes not just on top of well publicised and protested UK welfare slashes, but also on top of New Zealand’s ill-received news that social services could be farmed out to private prison operators. Furthermore, the idea that Serco might handle the government’s social work was dropped on Kiwi’s before the ink was even dry on anti-social impact bond petitions.

On behalf of British psychotherapists, the BABCP said the CBT proposal ‘might lead to a coercive approach to unemployed claimants and an attempt to attribute joblessness to the individual attitudes of claimants.’

They define coercion as the threat of punishment, and unfair and disproportionate inducements – rewards for participation in CBT are such that ‘an individual is pressurised by the extent or form of the inducement to accept an offer which they would otherwise refuse.’

These potential inducements in mind, Case Basket asked the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand to explain what their own drive to get beneficiaries with mental illness back to work looks like from a WINZ caseworker’s desk. Would staff stoop to laying on compulsory CBT to get disability claimants back to work or, failing that, remove any responsibility for them?

It is an important comparison to question, given that 40% of Job Seeker and Supported Living clients are getting assistance based on a mental health diagnosis.

A spokesperson from Operational Policy and Practice answered by initially stating: “I have received confirmation from our training team [26.06.2015] that there are no plans to bring in a CBT therapist or training staff [to that effect.]”

However, staff are getting extra training, allegedly to better understand clients on a more case by case basis.

“The focus is more and more on our practice. We have been look at training [over and above] basic mental health training we already provide for staff. As we move to get more of these clients back to work, we will extend more training to our staff.”

Aside from the obvious cost savings that government is looking for, the MSD wanted to explain some of the thinking behind the drive for change.

“There is a lot of evidence to show that the longer people are out of work, the more issues they have with a lack of confidence and lack of motivation – the longer the period of unemployment, the more mental health deteriorates. This is partly because of lack of socialisation.”

Pegged on this percept, two kinds of benefit are up for review: Job Seeker Support and Supported Living Payments. (Before the 2012 welfare shuffle, the latter was called an Invalid’s Benefit.)

Under JSS clients get a deferred work obligation for up to 6 months, but are considered to be capable of working fulltime, and will be first in the queue to find it.

Under SLP clients are categorised as having a severe or permanent condition that leaves them, for at least 2 years, only able to work less than 15 hours a week. They are not obliged to work, but many choose to find it.

“We are taking an investment approach to these changes – we are providing clients who opt for work with support to get them into it. We will also be subsidising employers who take people on. The employers are really important in this exercise– if they employ one of our clients it needs to be seen as a partnership.”

But surely not all those on JSS will be fighting fit to find work, or the right type of work at the time a job interview comes up?

“There are many and varied conditions – everyone will be looked at as an individual when it comes to getting them into the right kind of work. Regardless of mental health, we have to consider different factors for every client. Some people need little help and have their own system for finding work. Some people tend to need more support and information, so we look at individual circumstances.”

Finding work is all very well, but what about contracts that start out predictably then become ‘flexible’ with hours that decrease? A client may then have come off the benefit with insufficient work, and have a significant financial shortfall to fill, potentially disastrous for someone seeking to satisfy the ministry’s wellness through work approach.

“It is a valid question, as the workforce is becoming increasingly casualised.”

But MSD explains that such clients could be fast-tracked back onto the benefit – normally, for anyone re-applying after a work period of less than 26 weeks, there is a stand down period. But these cases will be looked at more closely i.e the case by case scenario.  The same applies to clients who start work, then within this 26 week period, suffer a mental health relapse.

Anyone failing to keep up work after the 26 week period will not be stood down for benefit payments at all.

But the Ministry stresses that they hope to avoid some of these scenarios, because they will not be shoving clients at employers who clearly don’t match: “It’s bad for the client and it’s bad for our reputation with the employer.”

To this end, if clients did need some time off for mental respite, WINZ would work with the employer to see if someone else could fill that respite gap.

“What we’re trying to do is reduce the stigma of mental illness and make mental health sick leave more like leave for an injury or other health reason.”

MDS adds that the Disability Allowance is supplementary and given over and above other benefits. It pays for things like high medication needs and frequent doctors’ visits. It is also available to low income earners for a disability lasting longer than 6 months.