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Peer support for employment: a review of the evidence

Authors: Karen Steadman

24 May 2016

Joint reports suggest peer support could boost disabled people’s employment prospects

Peer to peer support or mentoring is an effective way of boosting disabled people’s employment prospects, and should have a stronger role in government work programmes - two studies published today by Disability Rights UK (DRUK) and The Work Foundation suggest.

Disabled people say peer support offers hope, self-belief, encouragement and good role models. Crucially, participants of these programmes enjoy relationships of trust and feel in control of their lives – a stark contrast to the reported feelings of anxiety and pressure associated with current government welfare-to-work initiatives, which have an extremely high failure rate.

An evidence review led by The Work Foundation, while acknowledging that current research evidence needs strengthening, described its initial findings on peer support for employment as “very promising”.

It found some evidence that peer support could improve job retention, cut sick leave and help disabled people find a new job or move into education.

Building on this, DRUK undertook a review, to identify and share examples of where peer support is being used in practice.

Jointly, these papers shine a light on peer support’s role as a valuable tool to improve employment outcomes, and argue for the need to build a stronger evidence base on where and how peer support can work, and for whom.

DRUK’s chief executive Liz Sayce said:
“Disabled people’s user-led organisations have been particularly influential in developing peer support. They are well-placed to connect employment peer support to a range of other life issues – such as housing or debt problems – that can prevent someone finding work or moving up the career ladder. Scaling up peer support could also provide badly-needed impetus to the government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap”

Both studies suggested that peer support for employment could deliver indirect benefits – such as self-belief, self-confidence and social skills – that boost employment and career prospects.

Karen Steadman, health and work research and policy lead at The Work Foundation, part of Lancaster University, added:
“Research shows there are some clear benefits to the peer support approach when it comes to improving health outcomes – promoting hope, increasing self-esteem and self-management."

“All of the evidence we have seen indicates these benefits of peer support are replicated in the employment context – and that there may be substantial benefits in using this approach to help people to find, sustain and progress in work. We now need further research and testing of peer schemes so we can identify what works best, and how we might build on this.”

The reports add evidence to an earlier DRUK survey of 500 disabled people, where nearly half (46%) said they would like to access peer support for employment but only 12% had done so.

Other recommendations that arise from these studies include:
• The creation of a national peer support for employment network to share experience, evidence and practice.
• Government investment in research, to develop and pilot models of peer mentoring and evaluating their success, to inform the development of a good practice framework for using peer support for employment.
• The Government’s new joint Work and Health Unit to encourage commissioning of peer support not only for employment but also for health and wellbeing.