New employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants subject to the Health and Work Conversation (HWC) should be aware that if they are asked to carry out a ‘My Values’ exercise then they are potentially being considered for a sanction.
Health and Work Conversation
Following a Freedom of Information Act request, Benefits and Work has received a large bundle of documents relating to the HWC currently being rolled out to new ESA claimants across the country. We’ve published these documents in the ESA section of the members area.
Full roll out of the HWC is expected to happen by the Autumn.
The HWC is a compulsory interview which new ESA claimants will be obliged to take part in at around week four of their claim, long before there has been any decision as to whether they should be in the support group and thus not required to undertake work-related activities.
The DWP claim that the HWC is necessary because its staff do not not engage with ESA claimants until after their work capability assessment, which can take many months, but ‘People who have developed a health condition or disability are likely to be facing a stressful and challenging period in their lives’.
In the view of the DWP, their early intervention will ‘help claimants identify small steps they can take towards their goals’ and this ‘will build motivation and resilience and increase the likelihood of work-related activity and ultimately finding work’.
So, the DWP believe that the best way to help claimants deal with the stress of developing a health condition is to force them to attend an interview which can result in their benefits being sanctioned.
There is a list of claimants who are exempt from the HWC, including claimants who: are terminally ill; have a life threatening illness; are full time carers or where there would be a risk to themselves or others if they were obliged to attend a HWC.
The problem with health-related exemptions, however, is that it is likely to be a completely unqualified work coach who will have to realise that an exemption may apply and take action.
Claimants who fail to attend the HWC without good cause or fail, in the view of the work coach, to fully participate in the conversation can have their ESA sanctioned.
Each new claimant will get a phone call from their work coach two days before their HWC. The work coach asks the claimant to turn up 10 minutes early for their interview in order to complete an ‘About Me’ questionnaire, which asks questions like:
What kinds of things do you like doing in your life and at work? For example, cooking, speaking to people, being outside.
How does your health affect your life and your ability to work? For example, you cannot sit for a long time, or you are nervous in some situations.
What help do you need to get back to work? Tell us how and what you want to do and if you need support.
The claimant’s ‘About Me’ answers are discussed with the work coach at the start of the HWC. Work coaches are told:
“Start the discussion by acknowledging the claimant’s health condition but then quickly move onto something positive they have mentioned, such as an activity they enjoy doing.”
My 4 Steps
After the ‘About Me’ discussion, the claimant is required to undertake a ‘My 4 steps’ exercise.
In this they think about something they want to do, say how they would feel if they achieved it, think about the obstacles that are stopping them achieving what they want and then make a plan to get over the obstacles.
Clearly if the claimant is someone with a health condition that can only deteriorate, and which has already led to them having to stop work, this might be a rather distressing exercise.
Some claimants will be asked to complete a ‘My values’ exercise before moving on to their ‘My 4 Steps’.
In this exercise they will be asked to think about ‘what they value in life beyond work and health’.
Being good at art.
Following government or politics.
Relationships with friends or family.
Claimants are asked to spend 10 minutes on the ’My Values’ exercise and are assured that they don’t have to discuss their answers if they don’t want to.
The theory is that the exercise ‘helps people to feel more open to taking on challenges by placing those challenges in the broader context of other things that matter to them in their lives.’
Work coaches are told to use this exercise with claimants where, in the work coaches opinion:
‘The claimant is quite defensive – they really aren’t engaging with me.’
‘I think the claimant would benefit from spending some time thinking about what’s important to them.’
‘The claimant just doesn’t want to open up to me at all and have this conversation.’
Given that you can have your ESA sanctioned if the work coach considers that you have failed to participate in the HWC, you should be aware that being asked to do the ‘My Values’ exercise could be an indication that the work coach is considering a sanction unless you participate more fully.
Finally, the claimant is required to create a ‘Labour Market System Action Plan’.
This is a list of at least two or three actions the claimant can take ‘to move closer to goals that relate to work or health’. The actions are supposed to relate to ‘external obstacles’, such as training needs, housing, debt, health management or child care.
The action plan has to include :
1 Action (what you’re going to do).
2 Where you’re going to do it (for example “at home”).
3 When you’re going to do it (for example, “this Saturday”).
Examples of actions given to work coaches are:
“On Friday morning I will call at least two course providers and discuss doing partial study from home. I will do this at home.”
“I will call the number for Mind that my Work Coach gave me at 10am on Tuesday. I will do this at my mum’s place.”
Claimants should be told that the action plan itself is voluntary, they do not have to carry out any of the actions if they do not wish to.
However, the work coach is also expected to arrange a follow-up activity, which may be another interview or a phone call to discuss how the claimant has got on.
Clearly this will put considerable pressure on claimants to carry out the agreed actions, even if they have been clearly told that they are voluntary.
Reinventing the - square - wheel
The HWC bears considerable resemblance to the work-focused health-related assessment (WFHRA) which was an interview which used to take place, in theory, immediately after a WCA.
The purpose of the WFHRA was to “assess the extent to which your capability for work may be improved by the taking of steps in relation to your physical or mental condition.”
The WFHRA was abandoned in July 2010 due to having achieved only “mixed results”.
We suspect the WHC will go the same way before many years have passed. However, many claimants may have suffered sanctions or undertaken steps that put their health at risk before that happens.