Phil Clisby chats with Donna Morgans, Service Manager at Optalis, to find out why supported employment services are a must-have…
“Supported employment” is, according to the British Association of Supported Employment (BASE), “a personalised model for supporting people with significant disabilities to secure and retain paid employment”. The model, BASE says, “uses a partnership strategy to enable people with disabilities to achieve sustainable long-term employment and businesses to employ valuable workers”.
A supported employment service works closely with the individual and their employer, from job matching through to in-work support and career development. One crucial part of the process is “the close engagement with employers to overcome traditional recruitment and selection barriers”.
Over the past 18 years, supported employment services (SES) provider Optalis – originally as part of Wokingham Borough Council and now operating independently as a local authority trading company – has assisted some 300 companies across the South East.
What role does a supported employment services play?
At Optalis we support vulnerable adults to gain the necessary skills to access employment, work experience, education and training. The service also enables people to retain employment or return to work after a period of illness.
Our team works closely with companies to raise awareness of disability issues, give guidance on reasonable adjustments and offer support to those experiencing difficulties within the workplace. We also provide awareness training for companies on mental health, stress and other disabilities.
Optalis assists clients who are covered under the disability provision of the Equality Act 2010, those with substance issues and carers. We provide individual tailored support packages, where an employment coach supports people with CV writing, application forms and interview training. We also have a job coaching team that works on a one-to-one basis in the workplace with people who require additional support to maintain their employment.
Additionally, we offer education-based courses centred on skills into employment, in partnership with Reading College (Ace@Optalis and Activate My Potential), as well as confidence building and assertiveness training.
How do you engage with employers?
We attend careers fairs and speak at networking events, explaining what support we can offer – and this often leads to attendees contacting us for help.
I regularly implement and carry out training for organisations around mental health, discussing the stigma surrounding it and ways in which managers can promote positive wellbeing and self-help within their teams.
We also have some employers who contact us directly, where they may be working with somebody with a disability and they need some support.
Early intervention is key. So, if an employer understands that there is support out there, that it could just be a very small reasonable adjustment that is required for their employee to maintain their employment, then this is obviously beneficial to the company as well as the individual.
What are the main concerns employers raise?
One of the main issues is thinking that a reasonable adjustment would be too complicated to implement, when in most cases it isn’t. Some employers are unsure where to access support from and are unaware that there is possible funding available, such as through the Department for Work and Pensions’ Access to Work scheme. There is also a tendency to focus on a person’s disability rather than their ability. More often than not the concern is whether they are doing the right thing for their employee.
Our job is to ensure that the employer has the tools, not just to help that individual but also to think about the bigger picture. We help employers support employees appropriately, but also empower them so that the workplace, as a whole, becomes more mindful.
Tell us about the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) model that you use.
The IPS model encourages all parties to work in partnership towards a shared goal.
It’s about the SES, the employer and the employee all working together to ensure that individual is able to access paid employment. It’s about confidence building. It’s about looking at a person’s skills, not just in terms of the best role for them but also how those abilities could support an employer as well. It’s about open dialogue.
It is important to understand what hurdles they might think they have – because, actually, those hurdles might not be hurdles at all. It’s about breaking it down for the individual and using a step-by-step approach, but also being able to match their skills and support that person.
There is now overwhelming evidence that the model is far more effective than traditional approaches in successfully getting people into and maintaining their employment. Providing appropriate support to the employee and the employer promotes a workforce that is well equipped and likely to be retained.
How does it work in practice?
A coach will research the role, prepare the employee and liaise with the employer ensuring appropriate support is provided for the employee within their workplace as well as the employer.
During this time, some will have gained enough training and confidence not to need a job coach in the workplace; others may still require that in-work support. What is the best approach for that individual is agreed between all parties – it’s about choice and what that person needs. It’s also about doing it very sensitively. The role of the supported employment services is not to disable a person going into work, but to enable them to become independent.
There is also behind-the-scenes support offered to clients. There is a lot of work that the SES does that an employer may never see, to ensure a person’s employment is maintained – and most of the time it doesn’t have an impact on the employer.
How do you support career development?
We always look at the ability and not the disability, we motivate, encourage and enable people to recognise and unlock their potential. Many people don’t always see what they can naturally do and tend to focus on what they can’t do. Our role is to enable individuals to recognise their own abilities.
What are your top tips for an employer looking to recruit people with disabilities?
1. Always look at someone’s ability, not his or her disability. Be open-minded – there is a huge untapped workforce out there that you might not even have thought of.
2. Be proactive in tying in with a local supported employment services.
3. Reflect on your interview process – is it really accessible? Are you getting the best out of the person sat in front of you? Think: if that were you, how would you want to be treated?
4. Are you, as an employer, really looking at what you can do? We are all human. Someone may have great skills, but they may have a disability – do not exclude them.