Providing support from their peers is an effective way of boosting disabled people’s job prospects, and should be used far more in government work programmes, according to two new studies.
The research from Disability Rights UK (DR UK) and The Work Foundation concludes that “peer to peer” support or mentoring is an “effective” way of boosting disabled people’s employment prospects, although it is currently still “under-developed and under-evaluated”.
A review of research in the area, led by The Work Foundation, part of Lancaster University, found “promising” evidence that peer support can improve job retention, cut sick leave and help disabled people find a new job or move into education.
DR UK then carried out research to identify and share examples of how peer support is being used in practice.
The disabled people who took part in the research said that peer support – people with similar experiences, providing emotional and practical support – offered them “hope, self-belief, encouragement and good role models”.
They also trusted the people supporting them and felt in control, in contrast to reports of anxiety and pressure that have been linked to many government welfare-to-work schemes.
DR UK concluded in its study: “Powerful themes of hope, confidence and achievement come through from a range of sources and types of peer support – based on the empathy, learning and encouragement that come from people who have ‘been there too’.”
Disabled people’s organisations (DPO) – which have peer support “in their DNA” – are keen to provide such schemes, said DR UK.
One DPO told DR UK: “As a disabled people’s organisation peer support is the thread that all our work is built around and enables our organisation to support people effectively.
“Our organisations are experts in peer support and the positive impact it has on people’s lives. This should be formally recognised and invested in by government.”
One scheme examined by DR UK – a government-funded project run by Spectrum Centre for Independent Living, a DPO in Hampshire – provided peer support through a job club.
In less than a year, nearly one-third of participants – most of whom had faced significant barriers to employment – had secured jobs, when DWP’s target had been for just four per cent to do so.
Spectrum’s own results show that half of those taking part had secured employment, a work placement or volunteering.
One participant said: “The J2E [Journey to Employment] course gave me my confidence back that I had lost for so long with job searching, and made me feel so much more relaxed about upcoming interviews. Suffice to say, I got the job.”
Another said: “I was quite nervous to begin with as I haven’t worked in a group for a considerable time.
“Everyone was friendly and I settled in with ease. It felt more like friends helping each other.”
A key conclusion of the research is that the benefits of peer support tend to last longer because that support and networks that are built up do not always disappear when the programme is finished.
Examples of peer support examined by DR UK included job clubs, support with Access to Work claims, and schemes focusing on leadership skills, such as DR UK’s Leadership Academy, as well as schemes focusing on wider life outcomes.
Both of the studies suggested that peer support for employment could deliver indirect benefits – such as growth in self-belief, self-confidence and social skills – that could also boost job and career prospects.
Liz Sayce, DR UK’s chief executive, 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.”
Among the recommendations agreed by DR UK and The Work Foundation are for a new national network on employment-based peer support; investment by the government in testing peer mentoring delivered by disabled people; and encouraging the use of peer support to bring together objectives on both employment and health gains, through the government’s new Joint Work and Health Unit.