A man with his head in his hands

Will capability assessment changes force sick employees into work?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has launched a consultation on changes to the Work Capability Assessment, which will look at updating its categories so they “better reflect the modern world of work and the opportunities more readily available to disabled people”.

However, the announcement has been met with concern by mental health, HR and health and safety specialists. The assessment categories are designed to determine what activity people can do and how that affects their ability to work. This then informs assessors’ decisions on what additional financial support people can receive through their benefits, and if claimants need to do anything to prepare themselves for work.

Those who were found capable of work preparation activity in light of the proposed changes would receive “tailored support, safely helping them to move closer to work and ensuring a significant proportion of people are not automatically excluded from the support available”.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride MP said:

“Health assessments haven’t been reviewed in more than a decade and don’t reflect the realities of the world of work today. That’s why we’re consulting on reforms which will mean that many of those currently excluded from the labour market can realise their ambition of working. Anyone helped towards work through these proposals would receive appropriate support tailored to their individual circumstances, allowing them to safely access the life-changing impacts that work can provide.”

These proposed changes are due to come into force in 2025 but have been met with criticism. Vicki Nash, Associate Director of External Relations at mental health charity Mind said:

“While the rising number of people with mental health problems unable to work is extremely concerning, reducing the number of people able to claim sickness benefits is not a magical solution that will make people well enough for work. With these reforms, the UK government will be taking away much-needed financial support and the breathing space provided by the benefits system when people need it most. We know the best way to get people with mental health problems back into work is to offer effective support in the workplace and through well-resourced mental health services, but this is not the approach being taken. A focus on returning to work will mean work coaches being pressured to deliver mental health support, without the proper training, instead of the government delivering an investment in mental health care.

“People are already forced to undertake activities they are too unwell to do, due to inaccuracies in their assessment and a lack of understanding from work coaches, with devastating impacts on their mental health. [These] proposals could make this even worse. In particular, the changes to the exemption from conditionality for people whose safety would be at substantial risk are incredibly concerning. It is also untrue to say that people experiencing mental health problems that would mean they shouldn’t be working can simply work from home instead. This is presenteeism, and it stops people working at their best and can delay our recovery. People must take time off if they are unwell, regardless of where they work. Mental health needs to be treated with the same respect as physical health.”

Jenny Jones, HR Director at International Workplace also expressed concerns, commenting:

“A consequence of the government proposals could be employees with long-term mental health problems re-entering the workplace sooner than they might be ready. This is a worrying prospect, that without fully-formed support systems, may have harmful effects on mental health sufferers.” 

Mark Barrett, health and safety trainer with International Workplace, has advice for employers faced with mental health sufferers potentially returning to work too soon. He says:

“For mental health issues such as work-related stress, the employer must satisfy themselves that workers are fit to attend work prior to coming back into the workplace. This can be achieved by initially maintaining regular communication with the worker during the absence as well as looking into the causes of the work-related stress. Employers will need some confirmation from the worker’s GP/mental health professional that they are fit to return to work either at full capacity or by a phased return. The details of the phased return would be worked out between the employee, HR and the respective health and safety department. Employers may also wish to refer the worker to the occupational health specialist to establish their fitness to return to work and offer any guidelines and recommendations. Once assessed, the employer can look into putting a plan in place for the return to work. The employer should already have a stress risk assessment in which they look at the main causes of work-related stress. Stress should be managed by following the HSE’s six management standards for managing the causes of stress, which are:

  • Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.


“The return-to-work plan can be discussed with the employee prior to returning to work and implemented alongside any recommendations from occupational health. The employer must ensure that stress is correctly managed for the returning employee. The employer should:

  • Look to reduce the workload for the employee.
  • Look to adjust the working hours during the phased return, including additional breaks.
  • Not set unrealistic deadlines.
  • Have regular conversations with the employee during the phased return.
  • Offer in-house mental health support as well as the workplace Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).”


The government consultation can be viewed here.

International Workplace has two downloadable guides offering information around managing mental health in the workplace:

Mental Health in the Workplace: a line manager’s guide

Stress in the Workplace: a line manager's guide

The IOSH Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course, brought to you by International Workplace, is suitable for managers and supervisors working in any sector and for any organisation. It's designed to provide them with the tools and techniques to improve health and wellbeing in the organisation. The course focuses on the health in health and safety and provides an in-depth look at how managers can ensure the wellbeing of their staff, regardless of whether H&S is part of their remit.