Sam Ripley is an employment advisor based in Lewes, Sussex who is helping 34-year-old chef Andrew Simmons prepare for a job interview.
They have been working together for months. Andrew suffers from anxiety and has found it difficult to hold onto previous jobs.
“In some of the more pressurised kitchens, I’ve struggled a little bit,” he says.
“But I’m thinking this school job, it’s bulk food, you know what you’ve got to cook, you know it’s got to go out at a certain time, there’s no menu changes, so hopefully it’s going to be OK.”
Sam talks him through what his potential employers are likely to ask him, preparing and calming him in equal measure.
She’s arranged mock interviews for other clients and has helped Andrew with his job search as well as updating his CV.
She specialises in helping people with psychiatric problems into work and, occasionally, talking to employers about how they can help someone with mental health issues stay in work.
“A lot of the adjustments have been really minor, low cost – flexible working, working from home, having a buddy or mentor”, she says.
“All these things are very minimal, so going in and explaining that can be really beneficial for employers.
“The cost of losing a valuable member of staff and then recruiting someone new is really high in comparison to providing a little bit of support to keep someone in work.”
The government has rewarded Sam’s employer, Southdown Housing Association, for its approach. They have been chosen for a pilot project aimed at getting unemployed people with mental health problems into work.
The Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions have each put £1m into the six month programmes in four pilot areas, combining employment support with directing people, where appropriate, towards psychological therapies.
Lorraine, who suffers from depression, hasn’t had paid work for years and has been on the pilot programme for a month having been referred to Southdown by the job centre. She’s already applied for 2 jobs.
“The support is amazing,” she says enthusiastically. “In a sense they’re there 24 hours a day because I can email umpteen times and always get a reply, never told we don’t have time for you now.
“This is now a big step towards reclaiming a part of my life that I’ve lost.”
Lorraine will have her assessment for psychological therapy next week.
She’s fortunate. While the pilots can get someone onto the waiting list for help, they can’t push them to the front of the queue.
As waiting times for the therapies are lengthy in many areas, some people could come to the end of the pilots without having received any psychiatric help.
Nonetheless, the care and support minister, Norman Lamb, says the pilots are worth investing in.
“As soon as the individual is referred from job centre plus, the individual can get help with their employment search straightaway, building their self-confidence,” says Mr Lamb.
“Then the psychological therapies can come in. It’s crazy that someone is languishing on benefit at a cost to the state whilst they could be getting back into work getting their life back together again with appropriate funding.”
But he denies there is any move to make it mandatory for unemployed people with anxiety and depression to seek help in order to keep their benefits.
The minister says that no matter how successful these pilots are, they won’t lead to sick people being compelled to seek help.
“It wouldn’t work,” he says dismissively. “In order to make psychological therapies work, the individual has to want to sign up to it.
“The idea of forcing, frogmarching someone into therapy is a nonsense so I’ve no interest in compulsion. I want to help people get back into work but it has to be on a voluntary basis.”
Since I met him, Andrew Simmons has had his interview. He starts a job trial on Monday – all being well, the job is his.