Monday, June 30, 2014

Missing episodes

According to Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, mental illness is “episodic”, rather than permanent – and so it makes sense for people to work during the “good” times, at least.  Why set the default for the “bad” times; i.e. pay the DSP in both sickness and in health? Yes, but is this quite a glass half full/empty situation?

To answer this, let’s look forward at what happens when the next mental illness “episode” occurs during a work spell.  Quite possibly, the person will be unable to continue working.  Even if the ill person wants to continue working, the employer will likely want them stood down (to use a vague term), for the duration of the episode, at least.

And there’s the rub.  Generally speaking, it is illegal to sack, or otherwise penalise an employee on the grounds of ill-health.  So the employer will dread the prospect of a mental-illness prone employee becoming unwell – they will then either have to be paid for not working, or surreptitiously cut adrift, in a usually prolonged process which just scrapes in on the side of what is legal. 

The former means that the insurance aspect of the DSP is outsourced to the employer.  Which is a win for taxpayers, I guess, but a huge disincentive for employing anyone with a mental illness – the employer knows that they may be writing a blank cheque, that is, underwriting the employee’s wages during their episodes of illness.

The latter means that the employer gets to shift – eventually – financial liability for the person’s support back to the state (after all the paperwork has been done, and the waiting periods served, of course).  The biggest cost here, however, will be borne by the person with the mental illness – having lost their job on vague and/or technical grounds (but well knowing why they really lost it), the “episode” will almost certainly be deeper and longer for this experience.  That is, the end of the “health” phase – which is generally foreseeable as, for all concerned, a nasty HR process – adds greatly to the accumulation of “sickness”.  Put another way, if the person had never got that job, their total “sickness” most likely would have been less.

So what’s the answer? Clearly a person with a mental illness needs an income, from the DSP and/or employment.  Losing the DSP, even if in seamless association with a new job is likely to leave the person much worse off  upon the happening of the next “episode”.  There is nothing that will be seamless about this unravelling.  Perhaps part-time work at most – that keeps DSP eligibility – would be a wise compromise, but this doesn’t appear to be what Kevin Andrews and Patrick McClure really have in mind.

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