by Chris Napier
Over the past few days, I’ve seen a lot about the government wanting to change the way that it treats long term illness with reference to things like fit notes, sick pay and benefits assessments.
Some of the ideas floated seem positive and some seem negative, but the overwhelming narrative is the promotion of the idea that work is fundamentally healthy and that being out of or away from work for extended periods and living off benefits is not good for you.
Now, that is partially true, because aside from the financial implications, being out of work or off sick from work tends to exacerbate feelings of isolation, causes atrophy to your skills and generally affects your confidence and sense of self worth. This is well known and usually referred to as part of the insider/outsider dichotomy of employment.
Folk who either can’t work or are often off sick for long periods tend to know this and WANT to work, not least because we are socially conditioned that our worth is directly related to our earning potential. The social stigma of being ‘on the sick’ is massive and the vast majority of disabled people really do want to provide for themselves as best they can.
Making it harder to be off sick, forcing people to repeatedly ‘prove’ that they are sick and reducing benefits etc. will not ultimately reduce the number of people being ‘on the sick.’ Instead it will force people to work when they are sick and as such, less productive while simultaneously making them sicker and more likely to go off sick for a longer period than if they felt supported to take time when they needed it.
It also adds emotional and social pressure which will exacerbate the mental health issues which are well known to be connected to long term physical illness and financial hardship.
For this reason, the promotion of the ‘scroungers & strivers’ narrative which doesn’t take into account the additional barriers and limitations which disabled and chronically ill people must face in order to get and keep a job is downright terrifying.
Increasing the financial pressure and social stigma on people who are trying to deal with long term illness is not some benevolent and economically justified action, it is short sighted social eugenics.
Through personal experience of being on long term sick, having to limit my work for reasons of both illness and childcare responsibilities and losing jobs due to chronic illness (in my case, mental health but the following should apply to physical illnesses as well) this is what would help me stay in work, rather than go off sick for long periods or be forced out of jobs.
– a social security system which didn’t actively punish me for working.
– a social security system which took my illness seriously.
– free, full time (i.e. 8am-6pm) childcare from six months old until school age.
– a properly funded and accessible NHS, with sufficient services to provide for long term illness and mental health.
– a living wage from my employer.
– managers & employers who were motivated and compelled to support me rather than engage in tick box exercises using the threat of my being fired to ‘motivate’ me.
– more flexibility from employers as regards working hours and reasonable adjustments.
– accessible, reliable and reasonably priced public transport.
– more education for people to be aware of and compassionate to long term, especially invisible illnesses.
This is what the government would do if they really want to help disabled people and those suffering long term illness to both get into and stay in employment, to the ultimate benefit of everyone*.
*… and for those only interested in the bottom line, these measures would also stimulate the economy by improving the purchasing power of some of society’s most deprived and thus increase demand for goods & services, thereby creating jobs and improving the tax base while also adding a considerable pool of skilled individuals to the workforce.
However, I have little faith in this government to take such steps, as they are ultimately mostly motivated by making short term savings for themselves and their corporate pals, even though this will contract the national economy.
Don’t let the faux-compassionate rhetoric and biscuit tin economics fool you.