What is the Aspiring Workforce?
The Aspiring Workforce (AW) is comprised of people who, due to a mental illness, have been unable to enter the workforce, are in and out of the workforce due to episodic illness, or want to return to work after a lengthy period of illness.
Many in the aspiring workforce can and want to work. Yet up to 90 per cent of Canadians living with a serious mental illness are unemployed, and many of their potential contributions to economic and civic life are going unrealized.
Costly barriers to employment
There are many barriers to employment for people living with a serious mental illness, including stigma and discrimination, income security policies that penalize earned income, lack of sufficient opportunities for training, education and skills development, and inadequate sustained support to get – and keep – a job.
These barriers that deny employment take an enormous toll on individuals. Unemployment is linked to stress and instability, relational conflicts, substance use, and other concerns. It is also associated with a two to threefold increased relative risk of death by suicide, compared with being employed.
What is needed?
Many of our current ways of thinking about the employment capabilities of people living with a mental illness are incorrect, and the actions being taken are ineffective.
Canada needs a national program of action to change this situation. There are effective ways to increase employment - this is a problem that has solutions.
How to assist the Aspiring Workforce?
The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has funded research examining the challenges facing the aspiring workforce and the best ways to overcome those challenges.
The Aspiring Workforce: Employment and Income for People with Serious Mental Illness is the result of that research. Produced by the Commission, in collaboration with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the University of Toronto and Queen’s University, the report provides practical recommendations on how to assist the aspiring workforce.
From Governments and businesses, to policy makers and not-for-profit organizations, the report identifies opportunities for all Canadians to help.
Below are some of the major themes covered in the report.
Supported employment is provided by trained professionals, who assist people in finding work that they are interested in doing. This group of professionals continues to give support to the person once they are employed.
Supported employment works – what’s needed now is to get it working for even more Canadians. Access to supported employment opportunities is limited; more funding and research are required.
Provincial Disability Programs
Disability programs can act as a disincentive to becoming employed. Once people begin to work, their disability income may be clawed back and their health care benefits lost. And if they need to stop working, it can take a long time to undo the effects that working has caused on their benefit eligibility, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.
Significant policy changes are needed to create disability programs that provide incentives for returning to work, yet remain as a safety net for those who do become employed or maintain their employment.
Social businesses are an innovative approach to creating employment opportunities for people living with serious mental illnesses. While marketing goods and services to the Canadian public, these commercial ventures are also helping to increase the profile of the AW as a population that can make a meaningful contribution to our economy and to Canadian society.
There are approximately 100 social businesses operating across Canada, but with a formal organizing structure to promote communication and collaboration among them, social businesses could be further developed to benefit even more Canadians.
The development of such a network is just one way to advance the growth of social businesses, but every solution will require an investment of funding and resources.
The current Canadian policy environment often links disability with exclusion. Many disability programs draw a defining line between those who can work and those who cannot, without creating space for those with intermittent work ability - common for people living with episodic mental illnesses.
Disability income support programs were not designed with mental illnesses in mind, but policy reforms in a number of countries have led to improved workforce outcomes for people with disabilities – we know this can be done.
Implementing change successfully here in Canada will require collaboration by all sectors, including government, mental health partners, employers, and society.
To help overcome the employment challenges that exist for the AW, one strategy is to improve workplace know-how. This is the knowledge, skills and strategies for creating a working life, including getting and maintaining a job, along with ongoing career and educational development.
Supporting the AW, with the contextual knowledge and self-management strategies that will help people to best succeed at work, is an important piece of the employment puzzle.
Aspiring Workforce project research partners:
Report led by researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, University of Toronto, and Queen’s University.