What is it like to be disabled and work at the DWP?

By Bernadette Meaden
November 16, 2016

The Department for Work and Pensions says it is seeking to “transform employment prospects for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions”. It aims to ensure that workers who become ill or disabled are given the right support to help them stay in work. This all sounds very positive and ambitious. But what is the reality for someone working at the DWP who becomes ill? Does the DWP set a good example for other employers and practice what it preaches?

I was recently contacted by a former DWP employee, who found that as her health deteriorated, far from being supported, she was pressurised and made to feel guilty for being ill, until in the end she had no alternative but to leave.

Katie (not her real name) said, “I started working full time for the DWP in 2005 as an Administrative Officer, which involved taking benefit claims on the phone and using a computer system. I had asthma (controlled with meds) since 2000 and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2004. I had a brief spell (about a year) on Incapacity Benefit before I started my job at the DWP.

"I coped reasonably well at first, but my breathing and asthma got worse, a cold developed into a chest/throat infection and I could barely speak. This is when I first came across the DWP 'two ticks disability friendly employer' parody. I had to have a few days off and was hauled in for the back to work interview, where I was informed I had used half of my eight sick days in a year allowance. I was told I could possibly have it upgraded to 12 days, but not until I had had a second absence and been hauled in for the back to work interview!

"Fast forward a year or two and I began to have a lot more pain and difficulties walking and much more. I was diagnosed with Arthritis and told that both hips were bad and at least one had to be replaced. I then needed to attend more GP and hospital appointments in my home town eight miles away from work, and I don't drive. This became increasingly difficult. I was asked how long I'd be away for, could I not get evening appointments etc.

"I requested to go from five days a week to four. This helped initially but I still found it very difficult, and added to this was that from the crash/recession of 2008 we became much busier with more people coming out of work. I then found that the targets and things we were expected to work to became tougher and tougher. You thought you were doing your best, but it was never enough. I found there were so many changes to procedures that with my 'Fibro Fog', [ explanation here ] I was finding it harder and harder to cope. I spent most of my time outside of work sleeping and in shocking pain, and I really dreaded going to work.

"I then, along with others started to be threatened with being put on 'PIPs' (personal improvement plans) by our new, very young team leader, who hassled us day after day with threats and more. The younger team leader and many of the other team leaders were under orders/pressure to keep on to us about not meeting targets.

"It was pretty obvious that if we did not improve on the PIP plan, the next stage would be a disciplinary and that really upset me. I had been a very good employee, always on time ( except for odd bus malfunction) did what was expected of me and more, got on well with my colleagues/team and helped them out, when and if I could. That's just the way I am, so it made it even harder to be treated so badly.

"Even when I had my hip replacement in 2009 and they had proof of this, I was still subjected to 'back to work' phone calls once a week and even had to go in on my crutches (a friend took me by car) for a stupid and very pointless interview! This just about finished me and despite requesting extra longer toilet breaks during the day, I was in a very bad way and decided to leave, before being pushed in late 2010.

"I actually went on JSA when I left my job initially, despite friends and colleagues saying I wasn't well enough. There were two reasons for this. I felt I could do some part time, less stressful work, and I was so horrified at hearing people calling us to claim JSA because they'd been found fit for work by ATOS. I heard people crying, angry and not knowing where to turn, so I was fearful of going on ESA, though I needed to. Trying to look for work in a tougher market, being older and walking with a stick, I got some interviews, but once they saw me, that was over. I ended up being forced on to the useless Work Programme, that was so awful.

"The results of this are that I became even more unwell and ended up giving in and going on ESA in late 2013. Unsurprisingly that process and the ESA50 form, ATOS, Work Capability Assessment etc., hugely added to my ill health, especially my mental health and stress getting much worse. I'm a pretty mentally strong person, who's not had an easy life, and yet the DWP/ ATOS process sent me to the edge. I find it ludicrous that it makes your health much worse. It's almost as if they want to finish you off.

"I had hoped I had improved and clawed back some dignity after being put straight in the support group in September 2014. But in March this year, a new ESA50 comes in the door and I started to go downhill again, even my blood pressure (under control with meds) is high again and hasn't gone back to where it was.

"This is why I have no faith or believe in any of the so called 'support/help' etc., they supposedly are giving claimants on sickness benefits.”

Now, Katie left the DWP in 2010, so no doubt the current government would say this account is outdated. If it is outdated, it is perhaps because since then, things have got even worse.

Just last week, stop-pip.org released this video of Anna, an ex-DWP employee who was dismissed because of ill health and is now experiencing the harshness of the system from the other side.

In 2014, a DWP whistleblower told the Guardian: "Attendance management continues to get more draconian and sackings have become a regular occurrence: a recent guideline instructed managers to consider dismissal for staff off work for longer than 28 days regardless of the reason."

In its efforts to get people with disabilities and long term health conditions into work, the DWP continuously puts pressure on them. We are soon to see the benefit for many new claimants who are found unfit to work reduced to the same level as Jobseeker’s Allowance. Insultingly, the £30 a week extra such claimants currently get was said to be a ‘perverse incentive’ which discouraged them from finding a job – despite the fact that the government’s own assessment had found them unfit to work.

It is about time that government stopped pressurising, punishing and impoverishing people who are ill or disabled, and started calling for the necessary changes to the labour market which would be essential before ill or disabled people could realistically be expected to find a suitable job.

*If these issues affect you and you need to talk to somebody, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are free and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.