Employment opportunities for all? Social enterprises and mental health

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People who experience mental health problems such as psychosis or bipolar disorder sometimes find it difficult to find or sustain employment. In fact, rates of employment amongst people with these diagnoses are very low. For example, the Schizophrenia Commission (2012) reported that about only 8% of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the UK were in paid employment, which is much lower than international averages of 16-23% (Haro et al., 2011).

Some community mental health teams have employment specialists who advise people how to find employment. Other teams use specialist approaches such as Individual Placement and Support, which appear effective at supporting people to find and keep a job (Heffernan and Pilkington, 2011). Although these may help some individuals, they appear to have limited impact on employment rates. Similarly, Government welfare reforms, which have included the introduction of Work Capability Assessments, also appear to have made a negligible impact on employment rates.

These initiatives implicitly suggest that the problem lies with individuals themselves rather than workplaces. Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to support all employees, it is possible that many workplaces are simply not accommodating or enabling environments for people with mental health problems to work within.

In their research, Buhariwala and colleagues (2015) suggest that social enterprises could be better able to “’unlock’ the capabilities of people bypassed by markets” and provide employment opportunities for people with mental health problems. Their research had three aims:

  • To understand the range of social enterprises which created employment opportunities for people with mental health problems
  • To examine how these social enterprises created accommodating employment opportunities and work environments
  • To understand the challenges these organisations faced in sustaining work opportunities
The study looked at the employment opportunities social enterprises could offer people with mental health problems.

The study looked at the employment opportunities social enterprises could offer people with mental health problems.

Method

The authors contacted 21 organisations, which were involved in running 38 different social enterprises. They conducted key informant interviews with executive directors or managers. These semi-structured interviews were conducted by telephone or face to face and aimed to find out more about how the social enterprises were run. The interviews were transcribed and coded.

Findings

The Canadian social enterprises studied in this research appear to have been established specifically for people with mental health problems, many from former sheltered workshops.

A prominent feature was their flexibility to accommodate an individual’s physical or mental health. They also had considerable latitude with work tasks, which were allocated or the agreed pace of work. There was job security for employees who may not be able to come to work because of deterioration in their mental health.

These social enterprises appeared better equipped to provide support to employees than in ‘mainstream’ employment, both in the workplace and at home.

These social enterprises carefully balanced the pressures of being part of a market economy whilst providing an alternative economic space for those unable to work full-time hours. This was most prominent in decisions about who to hire and how many hours employees should work.

Conclusions

The social enterprises studied provided a social and economic service to employees. They were able to provide meaningful roles to people with mental health problems, which many ‘mainstream’ employers were unable to. However, poverty remained a reality for many employees, many of whom earned little more than the minimum wage or less than the threshold above which welfare benefits would have to be reduced.

Although the social enterprises offered meaningful work to people with mental health problems, wages were low and poverty was still a reality for employees.

Although the social enterprises offered meaningful work to people with mental health problems, wages were low and poverty was still a reality for employees.

Strengths and limitations

This paper provided a valuable insight into social enterprises as alternative workplaces for people with mental health problems. It highlighted their social and economic functions, and how they can accommodate to individuals’ needs. However, the respondents were executive directors or managers rather than employees, possibly painting a rosier picture than one which employees may prefer.

It was also a descriptive rather than an evaluative study, so it leaves many unanswered questions, such as: how does working in a social enterprise compare with ‘mainstream’ employment? Are jobs more stable? Is job satisfaction higher? Do employees feel socially included?

To be honest, I was quite disappointed with this study. The social enterprises studied appeared little more than sheltered workshops which have transformed into businesses. It was unclear if they employed people who did not have mental health problems, suggesting that they could be mini-ghettoes. They certainly did not appear to promote inclusion in the ‘mainstream’ economy and had a limited impact on inclusion in wider society.

I have come across many excellent social enterprises and businesses, which are good employers to people with mental health problems. I do not believe that separate social enterprises have to be created to provide employment opportunities, though they do seem to benefit many people. It will be useful to find out more about the experiences of their employees and compare them with those working in more ‘mainstream’ settings.

Summing up

With the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in place it should not be necessary to create special employment opportunities for people with mental health problems. It is perhaps preferable for people to be supported in ‘mainstream’ employment to maximise both their income and contribution to society. However, it is a disappointing reality of life in contemporary Western societies that special employment opportunities continue to be required for some groups of people.

It's disappointing that mainstream workplaces remain inaccessible to many people with mental health problems, who do not get the support and adjustments they require to work.

It’s disappointing that mainstream workplaces remain inaccessible to many people with mental health problems, who do not get the support and adjustments they require to work.

Link

Buhariwala, P., Wilton, R. & Evans, J. (2015) Social enterprises as enabling workplaces for people with psychiatric disabilities. Disability & Society, 30, 865-879. [Abstract]

References

Haro, J. M., Novick, D., Bertsch, J., Karagianis, J., Dossenbach, M. & Jones, P. B. (2011) Cross-national clinical and functional remission rates: Worldwide Schizophrenia Outpatient Health Outcomes (W-SOHO) study. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 194-201. [Full Text]

Heffernan, J. & Pilkington, P. (2011) Supported employment for persons with mental illness: Systematic review of the effectiveness of individual placement and support in the UK. Journal of Mental Health, 20, 368-380. [Abstract]

Schizophrenia Commission (2012) The Abandoned Illness. A Report by the Schizophrenia Commission. London: Rethink Mental Illness.

Photo credits

Pink Sherbet Photography CC BY 2.0

Caroline CC BY 2.0

angela n. CC BY 2.0

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Martin Webber

Martin is a Registered Social Worker with experience of working with adults with mental health problems in a community mental health team and adults with a learning disability in supported living environments. He is currently a Reader in Social Work at the University of York where he is also Director of the International Centre for Mental Health Social Research and academic lead for Making Research Count (York). He collaborates with researchers in Australia, the US, India and Europe to design and evaluate social interventions for people with mental health problems which aim to improve social connectivity and well-being. He draws upon his research in his teaching with social work students and qualified practitioners undertaking post-qualifying awards. He is committed to improving the quality and rigour of social work research to produce better evidence to inform practitioners and improve outcomes for the people they work with. He is also passionate about ensuring that social work practice and research remain closely connected.

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