‘The great training robbery’ – one year on, is the apprenticeship levy having the desired effect?

It’s now been a full year in operation, but will the apprenticeship levy “incentivise more employers to provide quality apprenticeships” and “transform the lives of young people who secure them”, as the government hopes?

A new report from Reform, which has reviewed the available evidence, suggests that “significant reforms are needed”.

Purpose of the levy

Unveiled in 2015 as part of the government’s commitment to deliver three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, the apprenticeship levy aims to encourage employers to invest in apprenticeship programmes and raise additional funds to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships.

The levy mandates that employers in England with annual wage bills of over £3 million pay a tax of 0.5%, which can then be spent on apprenticeship training. Employers pay their levy contributions via the PAYE system into a digital account held by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Smaller employers can also access the funds generated through the levy, but they must pay a ‘co-investment’ of 10% towards the cost of the training.

According to the 2015 Spending review and Autumn statement, the levy was expected to raise £3 billion per annum by 2019/20. However, the evidence reviewed by Reform suggests the levy is instead leading to unintended consequences.

Lower quality apprenticeships and bureaucratic burden?

The number of apprenticeship starts following the introduction of the levy has continued to fall. Reform highlights that the number of people starting an apprenticeship in the six months after it was introduced was over 40% lower than the same period the previous year. The most recent figures are little improved – in December 2017 there were 16,700 apprenticeship starts compared to 21,600 in December 2016.

Reform also found that younger and less experienced people have been particularly badly affected with the focus now being towards Higher and Degree level apprenticeships. And many apprenticeships are now for low-skilled, low-wage jobs or for re-labelled management programmes and do not meet the original definition of an apprenticeship, thus diminishing the quality.

The OCED recently highlighted the importance of maintaining skilled roles in apprenticeships, noting that:

“In the long run, even just a small proportion of low-quality apprenticeships can damage the overall reputation and “brand” of apprenticeships.”

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities

The use of the levy to re-badge existing training courses as a way to shift the costs onto government is a particular concern. A CIPD survey of more than 1000 organisations in January 2018 found that:

  • 46% of levy-paying employers think the it will encourage their organisation to rebadge current training in order to claim back their allowance
  • 40% of levy-paying employers said it will make little or no difference to the amount of training they offer
  • 35% of employers will be more likely to offer apprenticeships to existing employees instead of new recruits

Commenting on the findings, skills adviser at the CIPD, Lizzie Crowley, said “this is not adding any additional value and is creating a lot of additional bureaucracy and cost.

Reform argues that the impact on the public finances of allowing employers to re-label courses in this way should not be underestimated. It is estimated that inappropriately labelled ‘apprenticeships’ represent 37% of the people training towards any apprenticeship standard – a figure that could become even higher if employers are allowed to continue to rebadge training as they see fit.

If current trends continue, the government could be spending almost £600 million per annum by 2019-20 on training courses that have been incorrectly labelled ‘apprenticeships’.

stacked pounds shutterstock_66808108

Concerns have also consistently been raised over the complexity of the levy for employers. It has been claimed that the slump in apprenticeship starts could be blamed on “a combination of confusion surrounding the Apprenticeship Levy and the ‘increased administrative burden’ it placed on employers”. The Reform report highlights that the substantial increase in bureaucracy, among other issues, has led business groups to brand the levy ‘disastrous’, ‘confusing’ and ‘broken’.

Despite this, however, there is still support for the levy. A recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) of over 1,500 managers found that two-thirds (63%) agree that it is needed to increase employer investment in skills. It has been suggested that employers have ‘fundamentally failed’ to prepare for the levy as the scale of the challenge was not recognised. And a lack of clarity from the government has also been attributed some blame.

Way forward

The evidence would suggest there is potential for the levy but not in its current form.

The Reform report recommends six significant changes if the objectives for funding apprenticeships are to be realised:

  • there should be a renewed focus on quality over quantity
  • a new internationally-benchmarked definition of an ‘apprenticeship’ should be introduced
  • the 10% employer co-investment requirement should be removed
  • a simpler ‘apprenticeship voucher’ model should replace the existing HMRC digital payment system
  • all apprenticeship standards and end-point assessments should be assigned a fixed cost
  • Ofqual should be made the only option for quality assuring the end-point assessments to maintain standards

If the necessary changes are made, the Reform report concludes that “apprentices, taxpayers and employers across the country stand to benefit for many years to come.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on diversity in apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships.

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Breaking down barriers: helping disabled people enter and sustain employment

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock their vast potential.Professor Stephen Hawking (2011)

In the UK, the disability employment gap – the difference in the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people – has remained largely static for over a decade.

Just 48% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 80% of non-disabled people.  Employment rates are even lower for people with certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities (6%), and for people with autism (32%).

There are a number of reasons for this.  These include the personal barriers that people with disabilities face when working, a lack of appropriate support to help them into and remain in work, negative attitudes from employers and recruitment agencies, inaccessible workplaces and inflexible working practices.

Perceived barriers and prejudice

Employers are often wary of hiring people with disabilities.  A recent poll found that as many as 22% of employers openly admitted that they would be less likely to hire a person with disabilities.  Many more may have felt similarly but were less willing to admit to it.

According to research by the Centre for Social Justice, 63% of employers feel that there are significant barriers to employing someone with a disability.  These include:

  • concerns about their ability to do the job
  • the costs of making reasonable adjustments
  • the inconvenience of making reasonable adjustments
  • fear of increased possibility of litigation
  • concerns about their ability to integrate into the team
  • concerns about a potentially negative customer reaction

Given these negative attitudes and perceptions, it is no wonder that as many as 1 in 5 (21%) disabled people hide their disability from employers, and over half (58%) feel that they are at risk of losing their jobs because of their impairments.

Benefits for employers

In truth, research has found that there is a “compelling case” for hiring disabled people – although few (9%) employers recognise this.

Becoming more disability-friendly can significantly increase an employer’s potential talent pool – around 1 in 5 working age adults in the UK have some kind of disability.

The majority (around 80%) of disabled people acquire their disability during the course of their working life.  There are clear benefits to retaining an experienced, skilled employee who has acquired an impairment – not least avoiding the costs and inconvenience involved in recruiting and training new staff.

Research has also found other benefits. These include:

  • higher rates of retention, lower absenteeism and good punctuality
  • improved employer loyalty and commitment
  • improving access to disabled customers
  • improving staff relations and personnel practices
  • improving the public image of the company as a fair and inclusive employer
  • bringing additional skills to the business, such as the ability to use British Sign Language (BSL)

Adjustments often low cost

Research has also found that employers frequently overestimate the costs of reasonable adjustments. Indeed, according to ACAS, only 4% of reasonable adjustments do cost, and even then the average is only £184 per disabled employee.

In any case, the government’s Access to Work scheme is specifically designed to cover the majority of the costs associated with making reasonable adjustments, including the provision of special aids and equipment, adaptations to equipment, travel to and from work, and support workers.

However, not enough employers know about the Access to Work scheme; only 25% are aware of it.

Free support and advice

According to Acas, there are many things that employers can do to become more ‘disability-friendly’.

These include helping people to gain employment, by tackling unconscious bias, adapting recruitment processes, creating an inclusive workplace culture, providing appropriate training and support for line managers, as well as addressing basic issues such as access to buildings (particularly older buildings where adaptations are more difficult/costly).

Once in work, it is important to maintain an open dialogue between managers and employees in order to develop an awareness of individual needs and potential adaptations.

Wellbeing initiatives, and clear and consistent attendance management/return to work policies, including ‘keep in touch’ days during any period of absence, can also help disabled people to avoid ‘falling out of work’.

Employers can obtain support on attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people in the workplace through the government’s Disability Confident scheme. They can also make use of Fit for Work – a national occupational health service that is free at the point of delivery.

A better workplace for all

While not all disabled people should be expected to work, a significant majority would like to work more.

Closing the disability employment gap is important – not just for the individuals involved, but for businesses themselves and the wider economy.  Social Market Foundation research has found that halving the gap and supporting one million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion.

There are some promising signs of progress.  Organisations as diverse as Barclays, Channel 4 and the Civil Service have all established innovative approaches to employee disability support and management.  Such initiatives not only help disabled employees directly, but also serve as a benchmark of what other employers can do to encourage and support disabled people within their organisation, and raise awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people for the organisation itself.

In many cases too, the improved working practices associated with becoming disability-friendly are of benefit not only to disabled employees, but to all employees, customers and service users too.


You may also be interested in our previous blog posts on supporting neurodiversity and mental health in the workplace.  

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A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

“We need to admit that there is no standard brain” Dr Thomas Armstrong

It is estimated that over 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and awareness of the concept of ‘neurodiversity’ is rising. It recognises that autism, and other conditions that affect how people learn and process information – such as attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia – are a form of neurological difference, rather than being assumed to be a disability.

However, there remains a significant employment gap – where people on the autistic spectrum are often willing and able to work, but struggle to find and maintain employment.

Employment rates for adults with autism are considerably lower than for other groups. For example, only 32% of adults with autism in the UK are in some kind of paid employment. This compares with about 80% for non-disabled people and 47% for disabled people as a whole.

There are also many people on the autistic spectrum who work, but are struggling to maintain employment or to progress their careers due to discrimination, lack of understanding and lack of effective support.

Barriers to employment

Many autistic people are simply brilliant people – highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

A lack of awareness and understanding means that some employers are fearful of the behaviour traits of people with autism, and the effect of these on their business, resources and other employees. Hiring processes, management practices and workspaces also tend to unconsciously favour ‘neurotypical’ employees.

Research has shown that standard recruitment processes are a key barrier to employment for people on the autistic spectrum.  Processes such as writing a CV, completing an application form, attending an interview, or doing a work-place assessment all rely heavily on social and communication skills. It may be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to respond to open questions, or to abstract, hypothetical situations. They may be prone to conversational tangents, be overly honest about their weaknesses, or have difficulties in understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

‘Good communication skills’ and ‘ability to work as part of a team’ are commonly listed as essential criteria in job descriptions – even though in practice, these skills may not be essential to the role. Thus, those on the autistic spectrum may find themselves ‘screened out’ of selection processes.

The workplace itself can also be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum. Office etiquette, social interaction and the sensory environment (such as sounds, lights, smells, interruptions) may present difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum may also suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, which can impact upon their working lives.

Thinking differently

“Asperger’s syndrome provides a plus – it makes people more creative. People with it are generally hyper-focused, very persistent workaholics who tend to see things from detail to global rather than looking at the bigger picture first and then working backwards, as most people do.”  Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

Despite the challenges that they may face, research has shown that neurodivergent individuals also demonstrate a number of strengths of particular relevance to employment.

People on the autistic spectrum are often good problem solvers and innovative thinkers, with particular strengths in analytical thinking, memory, pattern recognition, and attention to detail. Some often have an exceptional ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, which can result in highly specific interests and technical abilities in specific areas of work.

Likewise, individuals with ADHD can have strong visual spatial reasoning and creative thinking abilities, and can be hyper-focused, passionate and courageous. Indeed, many of the world’s top entrepreneurs – including Sir Richard Branson – have ADHD.

As such, forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that they are missing out on a large pool of potential talent. Large-scale corporations like Microsoft, JPMorgan, EY, SAP and Ford have all recently instigated neurodiversity initiatives. There has also been an increase in the number of small companies that employ almost exclusively autistic people – such as IT and compliance consulting business Auticon – and specialist employment agencies – such as Specialisterne – that help match autistic candidates with employers looking for specialist technical skills.

What can employers do?

Traditional workplaces are built to suit “neurotypical” people. However, employees who fall slightly outside the range of what is considered typical often have valuable skills that employers need, such as lateral thinking or innovative problem-solving. It’s necessary to make adjustments for people on an individual basis to ensure they can perform their best in their role.” Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon

There are a number of things that employers can do to help support employees with autism in the workplace. Many of these are low-cost and easy to implement, and have the potential to benefit all employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently published guidance for employers on becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ – covering areas such as recruitment, induction, management and provision of on-the-job support for neurodivergent employees.

They recommend considering alternatives to recruitment interviews that focus on the ability to perform the job role to ensure that organisations are not unintentionally screening out neurodivergent individuals. These may include work trials, work samples, practical assessments, and mini apprenticeships. They also suggest providing candidates with detailed information about what to expect, being clear about the purpose of assessments and being aware of the bias of ‘first impressions’ and the limits of interviews to judge on-the-job performance.

In the workplace, suitable adaptations may include enabling employees who are disturbed by open-plan offices to wear earphones or face a wall, or to work from home where possible. Other adaptations may include the provision of formal or informal coaching or mentoring, regular breaks and access to flexitime, training and support for managers and colleagues, access to quiet spaces, flexibility regarding communication preferences, and clarification of any ‘unwritten’ organisational rules or office etiquette.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. What is key is that the support provided is both personalised to suit the needs of the individual employee, and sustained over time. It is also important that a culture is fostered where it is easy for employees to disclose their condition, to be open to suggestions for adaptations that suit each individual’s needs, and to raise wider awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among employees.

Neurodiversity smart

Making reasonable adjustments is a cost-effective benefit to society; we also have a moral and ethical duty to act inclusively. We could view the pool of potential employees with neurodiverse conditions as untapped talent, rather than an employment burdenBritish Psychological Society, 2017

The UK government has also committed to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. In order to achieve this, the number of autistic people in employment will have to double. Employers also have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

However, becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ is not just a legal or moral obligation – it is also essential if organisations are to harness the skills of this significant pool of untapped talent.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our article on ‘Girls with autism‘.

Working longer – the reality ‘behind the headlines’

Senior businessman in office working on laptop

By Heather Cameron

With no shortage of headlines highlighting the record employment rate in the UK, and the increasing number of older workers widely reported, it may seem that the outlook for the ageing workforce is a rosy one. But do these headlines hide the reality?

Recent analysis from Age UK argues that the headline employment rate doesn’t tell the whole story about working longer, “making it an insufficient – and even misleading – tool for public policy decision-making”.

The statistics

The most recent official figures show that the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who are in work) is the joint highest since comparable records began in 1971, at 74.8%, while the unemployment rate is the joint lowest since 1975.

Data also shows that the employment rate for people aged 65 and over has indeed increased since the 2008 recession. It is currently at 10.4%, up from 7.3% in 2008.

Age UK has also recognised the increase in employment rates for older people, noting that, in fact, the older the age group, the greater the increase in employment. However, the average number of hours worked has declined since the recession, indicating a more complex and perhaps less reassuring situation than the one portrayed in the media.

The biggest drop was for 50-54 year old men, whose average hours declined by 29%. For men aged 60-64, the average number of hours declined by 8 hours (over 22%), while women aged 50-54 experienced a fall of 18%.

The only age group not to see a decline was women aged 60-64, which is likely to be as a result of the raising of the State Pension age.

Choice or necessity?

The change in the State Pension age was justified on the grounds that it gave people more choice and more scope to continue working if they wished to.

A recent CIPD survey found that the most common reason for wanting to work past 65 is that employees believe it will help keep them mentally fit, followed by wanting to be able to earn a sufficient income to continue to do the things they enjoy.

As Age UK suggests, it may be that the reduction in working hours is a good sign if it is due to older workers choosing to wind down their hours, maybe to enable them to juggle other responsibilities such as caring for their grandchildren, while still earning a wage.

However, the research suggests it may be less through choice and more as a result of the changing labour market such as increasing underemployment (working less hours than they would choose to) or increasing insecure working practices driven by the rise in self-employment and the ‘gig economy’.

As it is likely working fewer hours will mean less income, this could be a cause for concern since it will be more difficult for older workers to maintain their standard of living until they meet the State Pension age and for them to save enough for retirement.

Another issue highlighted by the CIPD, is that most employees don’t believe their organisations are prepared to meet the needs of the over 65s, suggesting that there is a need for employers to also review their practices in terms of managing older workers.

Final thoughts

It is clear that while, for some, choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age will be a lifestyle choice, for many it will be a necessity. Any substantial reduction in working hours for these older workers could consequently pose a real issue.

It would therefore make sense for policy makers to heed the warning from Age UK not to rely on the headline rate of employment for older workers, and rather look beyond it to the reality of many struggling to get and keep the secure, well paid jobs they want and need.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in reading our previous post on the pros and cons of the gig economy.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles on management and organisational development.

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The disability employment gap – what needs to be done to change employer attitudes to disability?

Disabled parking (1).jpg

By Heather Cameron

‘Employment rates amongst disabled people reveal one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today’ (The work, health and disability Green Paper, 2016)

The government’s recent green paper highlights the extent of the disability employment gap in the UK, showing that less than half (48%) of disabled people are employed, compared to 80% of the non-disabled population.

Despite an increase in the number of disabled people in work, this employment gap between the disabled and non-disabled population has remained largely static at around 30 percentage points for the past decade. There are nearly four million disabled people in work, but research has shown that more disabled people have fallen out of work than moved into work, while the rest of the population has experienced movement in the opposite direction.

The government’s manifesto ambition is to halve the disability employment gap by 2020 – equivalent to 1.12 million more disabled people in work – but at the current rate of progress, it has been suggested that it would take more than 200 years for the employment gap to halve.

At a time when the UK’s employment rate is at its highest level since records began, with almost 75% of the working population in work, this is a disheartening statistic.

Barriers

This suggests that disabled people continue to face significant barriers to work. Some that are regularly cited, include:

  • physical barriers such as access to transport and accessibility within places of work;
  • a skills and qualifications gap between the disabled and non-disabled population, with disabled people only about half as likely to go to university as non-disabled people, and less likely to take up an apprenticeship;
  • insufficient support for disabled people;
  • insufficient support for employers; and
  • employer attitudes.

Employer attitudes have been cited as an ongoing issue which appears to stem from a lack of awareness and understanding.

A recent survey of recruiters found that 95% said companies are ‘fearful’ or ‘unsure’ about hiring disabled people. And analysis from disability charity Scope, suggests that employer attitudes haven’t improved over the last four years.

A new report from the Work and Pensions Committee found that many employers are not sure of their Equality Act duties, or are unwilling to make adjustments for disabled employees. It also suggested that there may be ‘discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes’ about the capabilities of disabled people.

Employers’ views

Indeed, employers themselves have highlighted the challenges of employing disabled people. Recent research from Disability Rights UK, which surveyed businesses from across the UK, reveals that one in 10 businesses believe they are unable to employ disabled people.

It also found that the biggest challenge to employing disabled people is that applicants aren’t always willing to be open about their disability, with around half of respondents (47%) saying that it would help if job applicants were more willing to be open about their health condition. Other challenges highlighted include:

  • fellow staff or line managers not having sufficient training to support disabled colleagues, and the lack of accessibility of some businesses for people with certain types of impairments;
  • concern that disabled people are more likely to take time off work;
  • difficulties in discussing the management of disabilities;
  • the cost of modifying equipment, making it expensive to employ disabled people; and
  • concerns that disabled people will claim discrimination if the job does not work out.

Such concerns are often misplaced, however. The survey indicates that businesses feel constrained by a lack of information about the adaptions they may need to make, and the support available to them. It seems that not enough people are aware of Access to Work, the government scheme that provides grants for adjustments to support people with disabilities or health conditions in employment.

And not all attitudes were negative. The vast majority (84%) of respondents said that disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace; and more than four-fifths (82%) considered disabled people as productive as non-disabled staff.

Final thoughts

The research clearly demonstrates that more needs to be done to tackle the disability employment gap. The Work and Pensions Committee report concludes that the government will stand little chance of halving the gap unless employers are fully committed to taking on and retaining more disabled people.

In particular, a transformation in attitudes to disability employment and support for disabled people will be required.

As the government’s green paper argues, “real and lasting change will only come about if we can also address negative cultural and social attitudes about disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Beating the back to work blues

Moving Crowds 4

The first journey into work after the Christmas break has to be one of the most painful journeys of the year. Overfed, possibly hungover, still angry at that sly comment your distant relative made across the dinner table a week ago, you and many others return to work at the start of January with the glow of the next set of bank holidays seeming very far in the distance (FYI the next bank holiday is Good Friday on 14th April – yes, APRIL *sobs*).

It’s no surprise then, that January is the time of the year that sees the highest rates of divorce. This is the month heralding some of the highest stress rates of the year, and is the lowest point in the calendar for many people who face daily battles with mental health. A researcher at Cardiff University, Dr Cliff Arnall has even created a formula to work out that 24th January is the “most depressing day of the year”.

Mental health takes centre stage at work

It’s therefore apt that as many of us spend much of our time at work, there has been an increasing recognition of the role of employers in supporting mental health.

In October 2016, Business in the Community published its 2016 Mental Health at Work report, which included a toolkit for employers. The report highlights the damage that concealing their condition can do to people with mental health problems, as well as the level of support that should be made available to employees to help promote positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Recommendations made in the report include:

  • Talk – Organisations and employers should break the culture of silence that surrounds mental health, particularly in the workplace by talking the Time to change employers pledge
  • Train – Organisations and employers should invest in training to ensure basic mental health literacy for all employees in all areas of the business
  • Take action – Organisations and employers should “close the gap” by asking all staff about their experiences of their own mental health at work and how any issues have been dealt with. Understanding the perceptions that staff have of how the company supports mental health generally across the organisation, can help identify steps to improve/ change practice if necessary.

Employers role in removing stigma

Ensuring good mental health in the workplace affects all levels of staff, from senior management to the newest members of staff who are still training or serving a probationary period. Multiple reports, including those by ACAS, CIPD, MIND and The Work Foundation, have stressed the importance of employers setting an example to their staff. That includes senior staff recognising when they need to take time to support their mental wellbeing too.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence Management Report for 2013, showed that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace. The report also showed that it impacts staff at all levels:

  • 40% of respondents said that stress-related absence increased over the past year for the workforce as a whole
  • 20% said it increased for managers
  • 1 in 8 reported a rise for senior managers
  • Only 44% would feel confident enough to disclose unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager.

The report suggested that if senior managers acknowledged their own mental health issues, it would remove some of the stigma associated with asking for help with mental health in the workplace. However, doing this requires a significant culture shift in how many organisations are run – which could take years. The Work Foundation, commenting on the 2016 version of the CIPD report, found that:

“Effective management of mental health in the workplace can save around 30% of costs felt by employers.  Line managers have a really important role to play in creating an environment where employees feel safe to disclose with the knowledge that the organisation will do something to help them.  Managers need to have a positive employment relationship where open and honest conversations can be had to discuss any required adjustments and provide that supportive environment.”

Using “blue Monday” to initiate conversations on mental health

This year “Blue Monday” falls on the 16th January. It may be called the worst Monday of the year, but employers are being encouraged to use the publicity around it to create opportunities for employees to discuss mental health in the workplace.

Questions to ask could be: what makes them stressed, what makes them anxious, how can the office environment be changed to improve the wellbeing of employees? There are also ideas for activities to help staff “beat the blues”, including lunchtime exercise, healthy eating and talking to colleagues about things other than work.

Specific sectors have also begun to initiate schemes to try to improve mental health and well being. Mates in Mind is a programme to be launched in early 2017 by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council. Modelled on an Australian programme, it is a sector-wide programme intended to help improve and promote positive mental health across the construction industry in the UK.

In social work, too, informal peer mentoring schemes have sprung up organically in many offices, with co-workers giving each other support when they need it, often in an informal capacity. More formal schemes have been set up to help social workers monitor and feel safe when talking about their mental health to colleagues and superiors. Feedback indicates that the low rate of retention of social workers is, in part, due to stress caused by secondary trauma or excessive caseloads.

 

So, as we trudge back to our desks for the first working days after Christmas, it is perhaps worth keeping some of these ideas in mind. Employers are keen to talk about mental health, but they also need the input of staff in order for them to work.

Putting some of these ideas into practice, may also go some way to improving the situation of many with hidden mental health conditions in the workplace who don’t feel confident enough to speak openly about it. We needn’t wait for the next bank holiday to improve our mood, small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing in the workplace!


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other workplace mental health articles: 

Managing mental ill health in the workplace

Ending the stigma around anxiety

Costs and benefits of the National Living Wage

English money

By Heather Cameron

Britain’s bosses have been urged by the government to prepare early for the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in April next year.

Firms are advised to follow four simple steps:

  • know the correct rate of pay – £7.20 per hour for staff aged 25 and over
  • find out which staff are eligible for the new rate
  • update the company payroll in time for 1 April 2016
  • communicate the changes to staff as soon as possible

Support

This push coincides with a new poll revealing that 93% of bosses support the Living Wage initiative, with a majority believing it will boost productivity and retain staff.

This is supported by new research by the University of Strathclyde and the Living Wage Foundation (LWF), which uses real-life case studies and evidence from employees working for accredited Living Wage employers. It suggests that paying staff a living wage leads to many business benefits – such as staff retention, more efficient business processes, improved absenteeism and better staff performance.

Potential benefits

Many of the findings highlighted relate to research on the London Living Wage (LLW). Among these include:

  • 50.3% of employees receiving the LLW registered above average scores for psychological wellbeing, a sign of good morale, compared to just 33.9% of non-LLW employees studied
  • an average 25% reduction in staff turnover was reported for organisations moving to the LLW
  • and 70% of employers studied reported reputational benefits through increased consumer awareness of their commitment to being an ethical employer

Estimates show that 4.5 million employees will see a rise in their wages as a result of the introduction of the NLW in 2016, with a further 2.6 million gaining from spillovers. By 2020, 6 million employees are predicted to have received a pay increase.

Up to one in four workers are expected to experience a significant positive impact from the NLW. If the result is indeed a happier workforce, perhaps the knock-on effect for businesses will be improved productivity.

There will however be variation across different parts of the UK and across different households, depending on how the NLW interacts with the tax and benefit system (it should be noted that many estimates were made prior to the u-turn on welfare reform). And let’s not forget that the NLW is not for all as under-25s will not be eligible.

Costs to employers

The impact on employees and therefore employment generally, will also depend on the actions firms take to prepare for the NLW in order to mitigate costs.

Indeed, the research from Strathclyde and LWF recognises that implementing the NLW will inevitably involve initial costs to businesses and could represent an issue for some companies more than others.

According to the Federation for Small Businesses, a negative impact on business is expected by 38% of small employers, with many expected to slow their hiring and raise prices.

It has been estimated that the NLW may lead to an increase in the unemployment rate by 0.2% points in 2020; resulting in around 60,000 more people unemployed and total hours worked per week across the economy around 4 million lower.

Businesses may also look to employ those under the age of 25 who won’t be eligible for the NLW. This could particularly impact on those sectors with a high proportion of lower paid employees, such as social care – a sector that is already under financial pressure.

The roll out of the Living Wage has certainly raised concern over potential costs for councils, which are having to deal with increasing budget cuts. The Local Government Association (LGA) has estimated that the NLW could cost local authorities £1bn a year by 2020/21.

So while increasing wages for low paid workers may seem like a no-brainer in the bid to help reduce in-work poverty, the full impact on employees, employers and therefore the economy, remains uncertain. Only time will tell what the true impact of the NLW will be.


Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on the Living Wage

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Support for the squeezed middle: could public subsidies tackle London’s housing crisis?

apartment building in Nottingham UK

A new report from the Centre for London has highlighted the potential of intermediate housing in supporting Londoners on middle incomes.

The report – Fair to Middling – argues that not only could publicly-subsidised housing help those on modest incomes in London find better places to live, but could play a vital role in ensuring that the capital retains the school teachers, bus drivers, chefs, nurses and other workers it needs to sustain its economy.

Chaired by the leader of Haringey Council, the Commission on Intermediate Housing was set up by the Centre for London to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of current housing policies with respect to those on middle incomes. Its latest report builds on a 2014 analysis, which found that house prices, rents, transport, energy and childcare costs were substantially higher in London than in the rest of the UK.

The new report paints a stark picture of London’s housing crisis. The Commission selected six households on modest incomes and charted the relationship between their earnings and house prices in four London boroughs. Among its findings:

  • Kensington and Chelsea is now unaffordable for all the selected households, and has been unaffordable for all but one of the households for the entire period covered;
  • Only the two highest earning households – a doctor, and a solicitor/journalist – can now afford to live in Haringey, but they will be priced out of the market in 2016 on present trends;
  • On present trends, both the nurse and the teacher households will find London unaffordable in two years, while the electrician household will only be able to afford Barking and Dagenham, and Enfield.

The authors warn that, unless action is taken to support the people it depends on to keep the city going, the consequences could be widespread and severe:

“Rising housing prices will inevitably squeeze these people out of the city or harm productivity in other ways – long commutes and unstable and overcrowded accommodation eventually affect performance.”

The benefits of intermediate housing
Fair to Middling makes the case for public subsidised housing in London, arguing that intermediate housing can:

  • help make housing more affordable for low-to-middle income earners;
  • keep London competitive and boost its economic success;
  • foster mixed income and stable communities.

Options for the future
The report describes overall supply of intermediate housing in London as “lamentably small”, amounting to less than 2% of the capital’s housing stock. Shared ownership – the most common type of intermediate housing – is, according to the Commission, an unfamiliar and complex product, and in the most expensive parts of London it is completely unaffordable.

The report suggests that intermediate rent offers the best deal to housing providers and investors.

“Local authorities and other housing providers should make appropriate use of intermediate rent products as well as those offering a route towards low cost home ownership. Intermediate rent policies should be offered at a range of levels to meet the needs of different types of household and households confronting expensive locations.”

The report also identifies examples of employers, such as universities, helping their staff secure affordable housing. It suggests that an employer-backed shared ownership scheme could help employees buy a share in a home that they otherwise could not afford, and help the employer attract and retain valuable workers while making a good return on its investment.

The Commission’s findings offer another reminder that, while solving the housing crisis won’t be easy, failing to tackle the problem risks creating challenges that may be much harder to overcome.

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Careers guidance: ready for the future?

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Image from Flickr user GotCredit, licensed under Creative Commons

By Stacey Dingwall

While there are many areas in which there are indications of recovery since the recession, the scale of youth unemployment is a persistent problem. According to the latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on the 14th of October and covering the period July-August 2015, the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds in the UK is currently 14.8%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 5.4% for all 16-64 year olds who are eligible for work.

The youth (un)employment problem

Recent research has focused on the importance of improving the employability of young people in order to enhance their job prospects. Numerous employer surveys carried out by organisations including the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) have indicated that employers are frequently unimpressed by the ‘work readiness’ of young people who apply for jobs with them. According to the UKCES, this can partly be attributed to the ‘death of the Saturday job’, and diminishing numbers of young people gaining valuable skills and experience for their future careers.

In its recent publications, Careers England has highlighted the important role of careers advice and education in tackling the youth unemployment rate. Their research highlights both the economic benefits of careers guidance, as well as those for the individual, including enhanced social capital.

Careers guidance, it is argued, “can play an important role in providing individuals with access to information and intelligence that is outside of their immediate social network, offsetting some of the disadvantages offered by inequalities in social capital”. Furthermore, it is suggested that those in receipt of careers guidance will be further aided by it as their working life continues, as it enables them to recognise the importance of networking to their career progression.

Good practice: Scotland

Over the summer, the Scottish Government announced a range of measures and initiatives to boost the employability prospects of the country’s young people. Alongside the announcement of over £5 million in funding for local government to help young people prepare for the world of work (as part of the Developing the Young Workforce youth employment strategy) came the promise of £1.5 million to support schools to provide careers advice to pupils from their first year of secondary school.

These announcements form part of the Scottish Government’s push to reduce youth employment in the country by 40% come 2021. Early indicators that this can be achieved look promising: figures released by the ONS in September covering the period May-July 2015 indicated that the youth unemployment rate in Scotland was at its lowest for this quarter since 2008, with the youth employment rate increasing by 25,000 to reach its highest level since the same period in 2005.

A particular careers guidance related programme that has been successful is My World of Work (MyWoW), an online careers service managed by Skills Development Scotland (SDS). A recent evaluation of the service by Education Scotland found that the value of the service is recognised by schools and colleges alike, with many FE support and teaching staff using it effectively and increasingly to engage learners in researching career options and exploring opportunities for further learning.

A key factor of the service is also its delivery online; as young people are used to engaging online, it is important that information is provided to them in their preferred format, as opposed to the traditional face-to-face interview with a careers advisor. Outside of the UK, countries including Finland have started to trial using social media in their delivery of career guidance.

An English ‘postcode lottery’?

In England, where responsibility for career guidance was devolved to schools in 2011, the landscape is currently a bit more fragmented. An evaluation of careers provision in schools and colleges published this year by Cascaid, a provider of careers information and guidance solutions, found that only 8% of schools/colleges have a systematic approach to integrating careers into the wider curriculum, while just over a third have a programme of activities with local universities and colleges.

English career guidance provision has also come under fire from the government: a 2013 inquiry into provision by the Commons Education Committee raised concerns over “the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people”; and an Ofsted review following the devolution of responsibility to schools made criticisms including that provision was too “narrow” and not sufficiently coordinated so that all pupils were receiving appropriate guidance. Concerns about the inequity of career guidance have also been raised by the Sutton Trust, whose 2014 Advancing Ambitions report suggested that there was a ‘postcode lottery’ of provision in England.

The new Careers and Enterprise Company has been set up this year with £20 million of initial government funding, and it announced in September the nationwide roll-out of a network of Enterprise Advisers. These volunteers from employers will work directly with
school and college leaders to bridge the gap between the worlds of education and employment.

Future provision

Providing evidence to the Education Committee’s inquiry, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested that careers advisors may not be an essential part of future careers guidance provision. Research has also indicated that pupils prefer to speak to someone they know, particularly subject teachers, with regards to their career ambitions. However, Ofsted’s review also found that the teachers in the schools they evaluated had not received sufficient training to provide information to pupils on the full range of options available to them. This is especially true of vocational education and career paths.

Considering the future of careers work in England, careers education and guidance consultant David Andrews proposes an option that could solve the problems raised above: schools employing resident careers development advisors with the responsibility of providing face-to-face guidance and working with teachers to deliver focused careers education programmes. Presumably this would include building links with local colleges and employers, something that has been identified as vital to increasing the youth employment rate, yet an area in which efforts have also been found to be lacking: per Ofsted, links between careers education and local employment opportunities in England remain “weak”.

Andrews also recommends the provision of an ‘all-age’ careers service in England. What is clear is that the careers education of the future must aspire to joined-up provision, involving clear communication between all parties. The provision of quality careers guidance is essential for not only the individual’s outcomes, but for the economy/society as a whole.


 

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