Two nurses who resigned from the government’s “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare because it was “cut-throat” and “ruthless” have described how they were criticised by their managers for being “too nice”.
They spoke out only days after the latest report to criticise Atos was published by the Commons public accounts committee, which said the company had carried out “thousands of poorly administered tests each year”.
Last month, opposition MPs also lined up during a Commons debate to criticise Atos for the way it has carried out the contract to assess claimants of the new employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
Disabled activists have held a string of protests aimed at highlighting the damage they say Atos has caused disabled people.
The grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts has accused Atos of finding people in comas and with terminal illnesses fit for work, using “an inhumane computer programme” to carry out assessments, and training staff “to push people off benefits”.
Now two nurses who worked at the company have added their weight to concerns about the way it operates, although Atos has refuted their claims.
One of the nurses says she and other assessors were constantly monitored on the number of claimants they recommended should be placed in the support group.
Jane*, who has posted her own account of her experiences on the Atos Victims website, said: “There was a percentage. If you were above that percentage they would review all of your cases. If you put too many in, you had to be monitored and you would have to get permission to put any more in the support group. There was a limit.”
Although she has no proof, she is convinced Atos has been given targets by the Department for Work and Pensions for the number of claimants it finds “fit for work”.
Those colleagues who were more ruthless with their assessments and found more claimants fit for work were “praised” by managers, she says.
Jane, who worked at Atos for a few months last year, said assessors were “taught to be cut-throat”.
She said: “It was drilled into you that you were not allowed to show any emotion. You couldn’t care. You weren’t allowed to care.”
On one occasion, after she had taken longer than usual to carry out an assessment, she was taken aside by a manager and told: “You’re not there to talk, you’re there to do an assessment. You’re not there to care.
“You are too nice, but that will come with experience. You’ll harden up.’”
On another occasion, she had been forced to abandon an assessment – following the correct WCA procedures – because a woman had become so distressed by the assessment that she began hallucinating.
Jane sat with her in the “quiet room” for 35 minutes while she waited for her family to pick her up.
But when a manager found out how long she had spent with the woman, Jane was given a verbal warning and told: “You have got to stop being so nice. This will go on your record.”
Jane says Atos assessors were taught during their training to try to trip up claimants.
“You had to tease information out of them, so they would drop themselves in it. We were encouraged to try to get contradictory evidence by asking them to discuss their typical day-to-day activities.
“For example, if a claimant with mental health problems reported difficulty interacting with strangers, I was encouraged to find evidence from his typical day, no matter how simple, to prove this was not the case.
“One particular guy became quite aggressive with me. I asked for advice and my mentor told me: ‘Don’t worry, he’s not mad, just bad.’”
After her concerns reached one of the directors, he asked to see her. When she told him she did not feel as if she was helping anybody, he told her: “You are. You are saving so much money. That’s why we are here, to get these people back to work and bring down the level of benefits.”
Jane quit the job with Atos after only a few months, concerned that the work she was being asked to do could put her nursing registration at risk.
She said: “I just don’t think it is a job for a nurse. As soon as I got into the car in the morning, I felt sick, and I just didn’t want to go. It is a job I wish I had never done.”
She believes Atos should be stripped of its contract to carry out the assessments. “They are so ruthless. Somebody said to me that the job is ‘toxic’, and I think they are right.”
A second nurse, Joyce Drummond, who worked for Atos in Glasgow in 2009 – carrying out assessments for incapacity benefit, ESA’s predecessor – says she was also told by an Atos director that she was “too nice”.
She said: “I was so shocked to be told a nurse could be too nice. It was horrible. I thought I would help people get the benefits they were entitled to. When the penny dropped, my conscience wouldn’t let me carry on. I was coming home in tears. I couldn’t do it.”
Joyce agrees with Jane that assessors were taught to “trick” claimants, for example by asking them about their pet if they were depressed, and then noting down if they smiled when they talked about it.
“Everything was just twisted, nothing was like it seemed. Everything was aimed at catching people out.”
She insists that most of the people she saw had a “real reason” to claim the benefit, and there were only a small minority who were “trying to pull a fast one”.
Like Jane, she said she would feel “sick” at the thought of going to work for Atos every morning. Eventually, she left the company, and has not worked since. She believes the strain of working there contributed to her worsening health.
She has since had two assessments of her own from Atos assessors, both of which found her fit for work but were overturned on appeal. She was found fit for work for a third time last June, and is now awaiting her third tribunal.
Joyce believes Atos is “just in it for the money”. “They have forgotten their consciences. The feeling about the place was that somehow the people claiming benefit were different from the rest of us, a lower-class person.
“We were told quite bluntly: ‘They can always appeal.’ There was no respect for the people we were assessing.”
She added: “It is not a nurse’s job. A nurse is meant to have a duty of care for a patient, to have a bit of compassion. They are supposed to be advocates for their patients.”
An Atos spokeswoman said: “We refute these claims. We know how difficult this process can be for people and we employ only highly-trained doctors, nurses and physiotherapists to carry out the work capability assessment, many of whom come directly from the NHS.
“We work extremely hard on providing a professional and compassionate service and our customer satisfaction survey measures how courteous, polite and gentle our practitioners are. Our scores in this area are very highly rated, consistently over 90 per cent.
“We take care to look after our healthcare staff, all of whom are aware of and have access to our employment assistance programme, which provides a confidential free-phone helpline and face-to-face counselling.”
*Not her real name
14 February 2013