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Liz Sayce OBE
Chief Executive
T 0207 250 8178
Liz Sayce OBE

Peer support should be a central plank of employment support

Authors: Liz Sayce OBE

15 February 2016

When we think of public services we tend to think of an interaction between a ‘provider’ of support and its recipient. In health and social care, for instance, a health professional or care worker gives their expertise/support to the ‘patient’ (a word redolent of passivity – its original meanings include to suffer without complaint or be ‘under’ a medical practitioner). Usually these interactions are one to one; and every time cost reductions come, they get shorter (witness 15 minute care visits), less frequent – or disappear altogether. In employment support, too, the dominant model is one to one support from an advisor.

This is out of tune with wider trends. Forbes’ top business trends of 2016 include that we are in a connecting economy: top performing businesses will focus on the value that comes from connecting customers1. Airbnb is the largest global provider of accommodations – yet owns no buildings. Facebook is the largest media company – yet creates no content. They are not ‘providers’. Could public services do more to enable peer support to create human and social value, investing in connecting people, not just direct ‘provision’?

The disability movement is rooted in peer support. When disabled people in a 1970s residential home resisted the rule that placed them in their pyjamas by 5.30, they wheeled themselves to the pub to debate new forms of independent living – and ultimately created centres for independent living (CILs) where people shared learning on how to employ your own personal assistant and live the life you choose. Since then, peer support has grown – but is fragmented. At a recent round-table on peer support for employment hosted by the Work Foundation and Disability Rights UK (DR UK), we pooled knowledge about job clubs, on-line sharing of stories, peer mentoring, disability employee networks and more. We are jointly collecting evidence on ‘what works’ from literature and practice.

The early findings suggest peer support can be effective in achieving positive employment outcomes. This is no surprise to DR UK: we have been working with a group of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) and our shared experience suggests that being a ‘giver’ as well as receiver of support builds self esteem, that the mutuality and equality of peer support are a refreshing change from the power imbalances of many traditional professional services, that there is nothing quite so empowering as learning from others who have faced similar challenges: not Paralympic heroes or celebrities, but ‘ordinary’ role models who have (for instance) got back into work following serious mental health issues. For the many people going through Work Capability Assessments, having to comply with activities or face benefit sanctions, peer support can be a welcome break from having things done TO you. And it’s not just true for people seeking work. DR UK’s Leadership Academy, run by and for people with lived experience of health conditions or disability, includes coaching and mentoring; in year 1, 80% of participants achieved their career development goals, from promotions and new jobs to running new projects and using new skills.

We hope that as Government prepares its White Paper on disability and employment, and decides on future commissioning post-Work Programme and Work Choice, it makes peer support  central to its plans. Peer support is not icing on the cake – it is part of the recipe, a vital ingredient. It has the potential to make a significant difference to disabled people’s opportunity to realise the right to work.

And it cannot be done on the cheap. As any DPO – or indeed Airbnb and Facebook – will tell you, effective facilitation of real connection between people takes investment. An investment likely to bring a good social value return.