Today’s employment figures are the first ones out for 2015 – and they tell a remarkable story about our buoyant jobs market.
We now have a record number of people in work - 30.8 million. Employment is up, unemployment is down and the majority of the rise in employment is traditional full time jobs. Indeed a new milestone has been reached today, with the unemployment rate falling below 6% for the first time in six years.
But the figures don’t tell the whole story. Behind these remarkable figures is something equally as striking which often gets over-looked.
There are now a quarter of a million more disabled people in work in Britain this year compared to last and the disability employment rate has increased by 2.5% - the largest year-on-year increase in a decade.
That's 250,000 individual stories of hard work and determination – of disabled people facing a better future in the world of work. And as well as their personal achievements, credit is due to the increasing number of companies who are championing the employment value of disabled people.
More and more companies across the country are waking up to the considerable talents of disabled people in the workplace. Indeed, evidence shows that disabled people tend to stay in a job for longer, have a strong commitment to their employer and experience lower rates of absenteeism.
Over one thousands of them have now signed up to the #DisabilityConfident campaign, including businesses as diverse as Honda, Fitness First and Barclays. They have all committed to changing their employment practices for disabled people.
While this is fantastic news, there is of course more we need to do to shift the disability employment rate in the right direction - in particular for people with mental health conditions.
It’s telling to note that almost half of those claiming the main out-of-work disability benefit – Employment and Support Allowance - have a mental health/behavioural problem. In other words, it is their mental health that is proving a barrier to them being in work.
And this is perverse when you consider evidence shows that employment is a key factor in improving the quality of life for people with poor mental health. Returning to work can be therapeutic and can reverse the adverse health effects of unemployment.
People with mental health conditions can and want to work, but the problem is that they don't always get the help they need to find employment that's right for them. That is where Access to Work comes in. The scheme provides financial support towards the extra costs faced by disabled people at work. It can help with specialist adaptations and equipment in the work place and also support workers.
Latest statistics show the number of people with mental health conditions helped by Access to Work has increased by more than 50% over the past year.
But we are going further than the current offer from our traditional work schemes. We have been running a pioneering pilot project across four areas in England aimed at helping those with mental health problems back to work, offering bespoke one-to-one therapy and employment support to help people get and stay in jobs.
In the first phase which ran between August and December last year, there were almost 413 referrals to the trial project, which was run by the Centre for Mental Health in Durham and Tees Valley, Surrey & Sussex, Black Country and Midland Shires. In the second phase which will start this year, we aim to refer more people so that we can properly understand what impact the project has on improving people’s chances of getting back to work.
It involves voluntary referrals from Jobcentres to personalised employment support and talking therapies by experts in the NHS and private sector.
People taking part in the pilot meet with an employment specialist to discuss their job preferences and any barriers to finding or staying in work. The specialist can then give advice and provide support through the process of applying for jobs, going to interviews, coping with any rejections and carrying on until they find suitable work.
Meanwhile, we are joining forces with the NHS so that people also have talking therapies to help manage mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Unlike other schemes, it will make sure people have continued access to support once they return to the workplace so they can remain in employment.
Through this approach we will continue to break down the barriers for people with common mental health conditions, so they can provide for themselves and their families with the security of a regular wage.