A row erupted on 8 October over a Jobcentre Plus leaflet that encouraged jobseekers to play down the severity of physical and mental health problems when filling in applications.

Published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the official advice was photographed and shared online by a Dorset jobseeker with a long-term health issue. As captured in the image, the advice appears under the banner heading, ‘What words will you use to describe your condition?’ Three following bullet-points state:

  • Avoid words that sound worse than they are – eg, ‘chronic’, ‘degenerating’, etc.”
  • You may find it helpful to use official diagnosis terms – eg, ‘multiple sclerosis’, ‘PTSD’.”
  • Equally, you may wish to avoid terms such as ‘depression’, ‘ME’, or ‘low back pain’, etc. and use more general terms such as ‘low mood’, or ‘a mental health condition’, ‘a fatigue-related condition’, [or] ‘an ongoing pain condition’, etc.

Sheffield disability campaigner Jen Jones told the Metro: “A lot of disabled people have taken this advice very personally. I’m fuming. What the DWP are really telling people to do is to lie. It’s insulting to both the disabled person but also to the employer. They have a duty of care towards their employees and to make adjustments to support them.

“How can they do that if the employee is being told by the government not to be forthcoming with any diagnosis? This is deeply unfair and extremely discriminatory to anyone with a health condition.” [1]

Meanwhile, speaking to The Guardian, Mind senior policy officer Ayaz Manji said: “Anyone who discloses a mental health problem at work deserves to be treated with respect, and jobcentres should not be reinforcing stigma by advising people not to disclose. People with mental health problems have just as much to offer as anyone else in the workplace, and it’s right that this advice is being challenged.” [2]

The advice looked particularly out of step on a day when the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) announced a new initiative to boost mental health support among its staff, including Mental Health First Aid, access to therapies and a range of intranet-based resources. FSB chief executive Julie Lilley said: “Just like all smaller business, we want to be a responsible employer and attract and retain the best people we can.” [3]

Following the media furore over the leaflet, the DWP announced that the material had been withdrawn. Where did this material go wrong? And what should jobseekers with health conditions take away from the controversy?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper said: “The problem with this leaflet is that it was being picked up by different people with a host of different expectations and needs, and a simple leaflet cannot suit the needs of all those audiences. Plus, it’s one-way communication without any context, which is also problematic. If you contrast that with going to an interview, where you’re encouraged to focus on your strengths – and to talk about your weaknesses in terms of being downsides to your strengths – that experience is very much about putting on your best face, and engaging in dialogue about your attributes and areas for growth.

“So, while the DWP advice was potentially well intentioned, when the choice of words lends itself towards a stigmatising effect – suggesting that those with health conditions aren’t as employable as those without – you can understand why particular groups have taken offence, and why the advice has subsequently been withdrawn.”

Cooper notes: “In administrative terms, this is all a matter of sense checking: ‘We’re thinking of distributing this advice – who shall we run it past? Who could we speak to who can help us make it better, or to avert a situation where it may be deemed inflammatory? How can we make it more accessible? Indeed, what’s the actual objective we’re trying to achieve by passing on this messaging in the first place?’ It takes longer, and there will be difficult conversations along the way, but ultimately, stakeholder involvement will enable you to arrive at an end product that’s much fitter for purpose than what was produced here.”

She adds: “Of course, people with mental or physical health conditions can make a contribution to organisations equal to that of staff without reported conditions – and I don’t think that was the issue here. There doesn’t seem to have been any, conscious intention to suggest otherwise, or to encourage jobseekers to lie and pretend that they don’t have conditions if, in fact, they do. This was essentially etiquette- and language-related advice around applications and interviews that, on this occasion, missed the mark.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity and communicating

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]

Image of Jobcentre Plus signage courtesy of GLE Photo / Shutterstock