Panic attacks, pressure to ‘ramp up numbers’ and a ‘bullying atmosphere’: Life as a DWP disability benefits assessor
Former disability benefits assessors describe being driven to illness because of the pressure to increase the number of assessments they were carrying out each day, with one calling it a “bullying atmosphere”
Disabled people are “set up to fail” by this system, which puts pressure on assessors to ramp up their numbers. Illustration: Lou Kiss
Lia was driven to panic attacks because of the pressure of working as a disability benefits assessor. She could not cope with the number of assessments she was asked to complete each day and became ill. She knew claimants could potentially have their lives changed or torn apart following her reports but she had little control over the final decision. That is in the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions.
“I was feeling sick at the thought of starting work,” she said. “I was having panic attacks during the assessments. Anxiety was through the roof, just sitting with your legs twitching nonstop for the whole two hours you write in the report. Weight was falling off me.”
Lia is one of a number of former disability assessors who have spoken exclusively to The Big Issue about their experiences working within the cogs of the “target-driven” disability benefits system. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
The three former assessors who have spoken out on the record for this article claimed they did not have the time to complete assessments with accuracy or empathy, which leads to disabled and severely ill people being refused support and facing a distressing appeals process, as previously reported by The Big Issue.
“It is hands down the worst job I have ever done,” said Sam, who is a trained physiotherapist. “I did not want to keep doing it. I would not recommend it to a single person. It is just not worth it. The stress takes its toll on you, even if you are a robotic person who can churn through assessments over and over again. You are not helping people.”
Lia worked as a disability assessor for Atos, a company contracted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for six months in 2022, before she quit to return to nursing because she could not cope with the pressure to complete three assessments a day.
“Targets go up and how many you have got to do goes up,” she said. “It’s just awful. You can’t use your nursing skills to do good assessments and make clinical judgements. If you try to use your nursing skills, they get thrown back during the audit.”
“I think most nurses go into nursing because they care, because they want to give patients a good experience,” Lia added. “I don’t think that’s what the disability assessment is about. I just think it’s about numbers. How many can you get through? And what loopholes can we use? Some of the assessments come out fairly, but I don’t believe they all do.”
Lia handed in her notice after five months. “I was going insane. I’d never been ill with nursing and it made me ill. I was having panic attacks. I couldn’t do anything. [My managers] were really good. But their quota of what they have to do is set presumably from the DWP. They always said: ‘It’s set from higher up. We don’t make the rules. We just implement them.’”
A spokesperson for the Independent Assessment Services, which is delivered by Atos, said: “We provide PIP consultations in line with DWP guidance and do not make the decision on claims. We always aim to provide sufficient time for claimants and our health professionals while balancing the demands on the service.
“This typically means up to three assessments being completed per day but this can change where more time is required. While it is not possible to comment on individual cases, we are proud of our supportive culture and have robust HR processes, meaning any allegations of this kind are fully and fairly investigated.”
The DWP said assessors are “qualified health professionals who play no part in deciding whether someone should receive benefits. The service they provide has a 92% satisfaction rate and helps us to support millions of disabled people every year to claim the help they are entitled to.”
The spokesperson did not address whether the department sets quotas for assessments.
Sam, a single father and trained physiotherapist, applied for the role as a disability assessor with Maximus because he needed the money to look after his toddler.
“I was struggling to make ends meet and looking at other employment I could do outside of the NHS,” he explained. “I love being a physio and wanted to keep my skills, but it wasn’t paying my bills at the end of the day. I couldn’t support my daughter.”
The salary was double what he was earning as a physiotherapist when he took the role in 2018. A job for a benefits assessor at Maximus today is advertised as £37,000 to £43,000. A trained doctor can earn between £72,000 and £84,200.
Sam said the training to be an assessor was “very good”, but problems began when he was qualified. “There was massive pressure to ramp up your numbers. Six a day would be your minimum. It’s not manageable, particularly with people that have got difficulty in expressing themselves. So there was enormous pressure to ramp up the numbers of people that you’re seeing.”
He took a £20,000 pay cut to return to work as a physiotherapist within the NHS, calling the role as a disability benefits assessor “soul destroying”.
A spokesperson for Maximus’s centre for health and disability assessments said its “priority is to deliver a sensitive, respectful and expert service” and it is “committed to helping them access the financial support they are entitled to as quickly as possible”.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), said: “The pressure placed on service providers and individual assessors by both the government and DWP is unacceptable.
“These workers should play a vitally important role that assesses the genuine needs of claimants with disabilities and other underlying health issues, that allows them access to the social security they need.”
The government has ring-fenced £2.8 billion to give to companies to complete disability benefits assessments over the next five years. Maximus was recently selected as the largest provider of the new functional assessment services contract on behalf of the DWP, and Capita has also had its contract renewed.
“For the companies who receive multimillion-pound contracts from this government, to then subject [their] own workforce to the same sort of harsh regime our members in DWP all too often face is simply not acceptable,” Serwotka added.
“PCS has long-standing policy for the role to be brought in-house and delivered as a public service run by the public service. Neither the individual assessors nor our members who administer the benefits system, should ever be coerced into making it more difficult for those who need it to claim benefits.”
Sam feels he was “trained to catch people out” and admitted he sometimes skewed assessments so the decision was more likely to go in their favour. Lia added: “I could be talking to someone who I know in my mind deserves this as a right, without a doubt, but I couldn’t make them fit that box.”
Both believe that healthcare professionals should have a more active role in decision making and more care should go into the process – rather than the focus being on numbers.
Alice, who was a PIP assessor for NHS Lanarkshire under Atos for eight years until 2021, said there was a “bullying atmosphere” towards the end. “You have to do four or five a day. And then you would come in the next day and an audit would come back that a word or two were spelt wrong or they wanted further information. It was very high pressure and a lot of people left because of that.”
Over the eight years she worked there, it became increasingly strenuous. “There was more pressure towards report writing and audits,” she claimed. “It was more about paperwork than a healthcare assessment towards the end. People were feeling lethargic. There was more pressure on people to finish a report before the end of the day. A lot of people didn’t even get through the training. They just couldn’t do it.”
Eventually she couldn’t take it any more either and she quit. “The pressure got too much. The day before I went off sick, I assessed a person with epilepsy – a really hard condition to assess. The person had sent in 140 pieces of information and it was classed as a short assessment.
“I said to one of my line managers: ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I never had any assessments left over the next day. I always completed them on time. And I just thought: ‘They’re not listening anymore.’ It was a bullying atmosphere. I just thought: ‘I can’t do this.’”
A spokesperson for NHS Lanarkshire responded: “As an organisation we take any forms of discrimination or bullying extremely seriously and can confirm that there have been no internal complaints from any member of staff about bullying in the team in the last 12 years.”
Disability campaigners, the former assessors and claimants themselves agree the current system is “broken” and change is necessary. They believe this would benefit people working within the system but, most importantly, it would benefit vulnerable people who desperately need financial support.
The PCS plans to continue working with organisations to campaign “for a social security system that has fairness and dignity for claimants at its core, rather than the current punitive regime”.
Serwotka said: “If we can achieve that, then the aggressive culture we all too often see for workers in both DWP and the outsourced companies will be replaced by a more respectful and sympathetic one, and we will all benefit from that.”
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