Pushing the Mentally Ill Into Work

News broke today of a new scheme for the mentally ill on sickness benefits in New Zealand. The Government is going to pay private employment agencies to move them into work.

Moving people who are stable and ready into work is a noble goal. It can be really hard to get back into work with a gap in your work record, maybe no good reference from your last job because your illness affected your leaving circumstances. The current job market is so tight that employers can be very picky about candidates, and having any kind of black mark against you can mean losing out to one of the other couple of hundred people that apply for almost every job. So any help or support that’s offered is awesome.

But I don’t think this is about that. They say it’s for people with “entrenched mental health issues”, which to me reads like people who are very unwell, probably long-term sufferers. Being on the sickness benefit specifically means that a doctor has certified that these people are unable to work – if they were well enough for work, they would be on an unemployment benefit, not a sickness. So, by definition, these are people who cannot work.

Perhaps we can look at it charitably, and imagine that they’re trying to create sheltered work environments, sort of like what used to be found for the intellectually disabled. Maybe they imagine that people with “depression, stress and anxiety disorders” aren’t that very unwell, and given the right opportunities they can work, and maybe it will even help them become well again. And they might even be right in a few cases, especially of people with less severe illnesses that they are becoming able to deal with, through therapy and medication. It could be a godsend for people like that.

But I don’t think it’s like that either. It’s not being talked about in terms of the wellbeing of these people. It’s “to reduce the potential lifetime benefit liability”. And there it is, as baldly as possible. It’s not about people becoming well and returning to the workplace as part of their treatment plan. It’s about saving money. If these were cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, there would be an outcry. They can’t work! They’re too ill! Well, mentally ill people are no different. When they go into remission, they may well be well enough to work, and they deserve support to do so. But they can’t work when they’re acutely unwell.

The organisations ‘helping’ these people into work are private entities. They can earn up to $12,000 per person for this, and they will earn part of that just for taking the case, even if they don’t find them a job. They plan to ‘help’ around 1000 people per year – that’s up to $12 million that the government plans to funnel into private hands, on a plan that really doesn’t seem feasible.

Providers will have six months to place these clients before they are “exited” from the service. What exactly does that mean? What happens to those that aren’t placed? Are they still eligible for a benefit? And what happens to the money already paid out to the private entity who has failed to place them? What kind of pressures are going to be placed on these people by the providers to take possibly unsuitable employment in order to squeeze the most profit possible out of the system?

And where are these jobs going to come from? The market is very tight right now. Why are we trying to put people certifiably unable to work into jobs when there are myriad unemployed people desperate for jobs? It makes no sense.

This scheme is simply not going to work for seriously ill people, and people with “entrenched” mental illnesses would seem to me to be seriously ill. Severely depressed people who can’t even function well enough to dress themselves in the morning (as I was only a few weeks ago) cannot work. People with anxiety disorders who are forced into work are going to become even more anxious and less able to deal with their illnesses. And those off work due to stress will become even more ill if forced back into jobs that cause them more stress.

“Bids from private organisations closed on June 24 and agreements are due to start from tomorrow.” So it’s too late to do anything about it. I wonder if any mental health advocacy organisation was consulted about this, because from what I can see, it’s a bad deal for the mentally ill.


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