The WorkWell scheme will be piloted in 15 areas in England, with the aim of bringing more people back into the workplace
“Where someone could fall out of work and on to long-term sickness benefits, WorkWell is designed to swoop in and provide the support that people need to stay in work, or return as soon as possible.” Mel Stride, work and pensions secretary, and Victoria Atkins, health secretary
The government is to launch a scheme in England in which people signed off as long-term sick will be referred to recreational activities such as gardening, with the goal of getting them back into work.
Currently there are 2.6m people off work as a result of long-term sickness, and the cost of disability benefits is projected to rise to £93 billion a year by the end of the decade. Government figures show that many of these are experiencing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. At the same time, 2.2m people are claiming universal credit (UC) with no requirement to look for work. They represent a third of total UC claimants.
The figures for young people are particularly striking. More than half a million young people in the UK say they are out of work due to long-term illness, a 44% increase in four years. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that more than 560,000 people aged between 16 and 34 were economically inactive as a result of long-term sickness in the first three months of 2023.
Under the new scheme, known as WorkWell, job centres, doctors, social workers and charities will be expected to refer people for physiotherapy, life coaching and “social prescribing” activities designed to boost wellbeing. These activities will include singing, cooking and gardening clubs. The idea is to create a national occupational health service to reduce the number of people GPs sign off from work.
In an article for The Times, Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, and Victoria Atkins, the health secretary, said that the government “is on a mission to get people back to work”.
WorkWell will be piloted in 15 areas. Stride and Atkins said the scheme would “provide integrated health and job support tailored to individual needs”. Initially about 59,000 people will be involved in the pilots, but there are plans to roll the scheme out nationally if they are successful.
“From work coaches to clinicians, therapists to running clubs, we will bring together the interventions that we know work to change lives and help people bounce back,” Stride and Atkins wrote.
“Where someone could fall out of work and on to long-term sickness benefits, WorkWell is designed to swoop in and provide the support that people need to stay in work, or return as soon as possible.”
The pilot areas will evaluate ways of designing the service to provide the best help to people either at risk of dropping out of work because of sickness, or who have recently given up their jobs.
Stride and Atkins wrote that the scheme would not be “one size fits all” but would see “the local services that support good health and wellbeing working hand in hand with the services that help people find and stay in employment”.
“We know the longer someone spends out of work, the harder it becomes for them to find a job,” they wrote. “We also know that one in five of those claiming the highest level of health benefits want to work and feel they could do so with the right support.”
They added that work is important because it “not only provides the satisfaction of an earned wage, but improves our physical and mental wellbeing too”.
Although the scheme is billed as a joint initiative by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health, sources told the Times that the DWP had effectively “taken it over”.
The Labour Party has criticised the initiative. Alison McGovern, the shadow employment minister, said the scheme was “all too little and it’s far too late”. She added: “Under the Tories, a record number of people are out of work due to long-term sickness and we’re the only G7 country where the employment rate is lower than at the start of the pandemic. A small pilot programme, no matter how successful, isn’t going to touch the sides.”
The number of people signed off work as long-term sick has risen significantly. According to ONS figures, more than half report depression or anxiety, though in the majority of cases, that is their secondary condition rather than the main one. It is understandable that the government wants to get people back into work, and in some cases social prescribing may well be appropriate – it is difficult to argue with a project that encourages people to join choirs or gardening clubs to boost mental and physical wellbeing. Nonetheless, we are concerned that, while promoting its WorkWell scheme, the government may be ignoring the deeper problem of why so many people are on long-term sick leave. The social prescribing approach should be complemented by efforts to tackle the underlying problems causing chronic illness and making sure that the NHS has the resources to treat people who are chronically ill.