Work Capability Assessments can have adverse impact on mental health

Researchers say participants’ experiences are heartbreaking 

Date posted

23 February 2017


Work Capability Assessments discriminate against people with mental health problems and should be entirely rethought, according to a new report.

The majority of assessors do not have mental health expertise and the tests work against people’s efforts to improve their wellbeing through volunteering.

The report also shows that the assessments cause deterioration in people’s mental health and, in the worst cases, lead to thoughts of suicide.

Dr Gavin Maclean (right), a research assistant within Edinburgh Napier’s Employment Research Institute, carried out the work with Professor Abigail Marks and Dr Sue Cowan from Heriot-Watt University.

They interviewed 30 individuals with mental health conditions who had undergone work capability assessments (WCAs). The team also interviewed individuals from advocacy organisations, Citizens Advice Bureau and a former employee of Ingeus, one of the private Work Programme providers.

The report includes excerpts from interviews with the participants, who reported a variety of experiences with WCAs. 

Donna attended her WCA shortly after being discharged from a psychiatric unit. She dressed smartly, as she would for any interview. She was having ‘a good day’, but after 12 minutes received zero points and failed the assessment.

James also failed his WCA. James suffers from panic attacks and during his assessment, his assessor pointed out that he was not rocking in his chair, which, as she wrote, ‘is consistent’ with panic attacks and anxiety. She also noted that James was ‘tearful’ throughout the interview. James was in fact having a panic attack throughout the assessment.

Dr Maclean, who has previously worked on projects investigating mental health and welfare reform, said: “The experiences of our participants are heartbreaking and the role of government needs to be to protect those most vulnerable rather than subject them to the stress of the Work Capability Assessment.

“Policy needs to focus on allowing individuals out of work with mental health conditions the space to recover from periods of illness without the pressure of having to think about work, or the uncertainty of waiting for the phone to ring or the brown envelope inviting them to their next assessment.”

Professor Abigail Marks, from Heriot-Watt’s Centre for Research on Work and Wellbeing, said: “The work capability assessments are fundamentally discriminatory to people with mental health conditions. 

“It is unacceptable that healthcare professionals who act as assessors for the WCA, for example, physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists are not fully qualified or trained to assess mental health conditions, yet they seem to be able to override participants’ own GPs, community psychiatric nurses, and therapists.

“The WCA must be entirely redesigned, and focus on the potential barriers to work for both physical and mental health problems.” 

The report also highlighted that WCAs make non-Work Programme work experience, or other voluntary work, almost ‘impossible’ for people with mental health conditions. Many of the participants in the study found the experience of the WCA so damaging that they stopped engaging in work-based activity and did not return to it.

The report, Mental Health and Unemployment in Scotland: Understanding the impact of welfare reforms in Scotland for individuals with mental health conditions, is based on research funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland

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