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Home > Employment and drug use: an emerging evidence base.

Keane, Martin (2012) Employment and drug use: an emerging evidence base. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 40, Winter 2011 , pp. 17-18.

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Bauld et al. (2010)undertook a study on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (UK) to examine the issues surrounding benefit uptake by individuals who use illicit drugs, particularly heroin and/or crack cocaine. The study also explored the wider context of education, training and employment for drug users, as well as the role of treatment. The study included two components: a comprehensive but non-systematic review of relevant literature and semi-structured interviews with 75 individuals, 54 male and 21 female, who were current or recent users of drug treatment services in five separate case study areas in the UK. Ten service providers from the five locations were also interviewed. This article will present the findings from the interviews with the 75 individuals. 

Education and training profile
Most of the people interviewed had left school with few qualifications. Their early-school experiences included school expulsion, episodes of truancy, being the victim of bullying and dealing with dyslexia. Several reported returning to vocational training when they left school and some managed to achieve vocational qualifications. However, most remained poorly qualified for the labour market and lacked many of the skills sought by employers. Some felt their employment prospects were restricted by having had a poor education and the fact that they had few skills and qualifications.
Employment and benefits history
Most of the people interviewed were not in paid legal employment but many were involved in volunteering, with some in drug and alcohol services. Volunteering was perceived as very beneficial in that it provided opportunities to move into employment and assisted with recovery. Volunteering allowed them to test out their ability to work, and also enabled them to give something back to their community and help support others in a similar position.
Most had worked at some point in the past, some for longer periods than others. A small number had advanced work-related knowledge and skills and had secured meaningful employment, while others with few vocational skills were confined to working in unskilled jobs. All interviewees were either currently in receipt of benefits or had received them in the past, these included incapacity benefit, income support and job-seekers allowance.
Barriers to employment
Interviewees were reported to be lacking in self-confidence and coping with poor mental health, including depression and anxiety. Related to their lack of self-confidence was a fear of relapse if they returned to work before they felt ready. They felt incapable of meeting the demands of returning to work and, for some, the idea of job-hunting was a daunting prospect.  Some were daunted by the prospect of putting together a CV and attending interviews and trying to account for long gaps in their CV and a lack of references. A common theme among interviewees was their concern that the physical health problems they suffered from, such as multiple sclerosis, back injuries and hepatitis C, might prevent them from finding employment.
They also feared stigmatisation from potential employers because of their history of using drugs; related to this was uncertainly about how employers would deal with their receiving treatment while being employed. Other respondents worried about the side effects of medication compromising their ability to work properly.
Interviewees admitted to involvement in shoplifting, burglary, drug dealing and fraud as a means of obtaining money for drugs. Most admitting having done cash-in-hand work and some had been involved in prostitution.
Future aspirations
Almost all the people interviewed expressed the view that becoming drug free was a higher priority than coming off benefits and getting a job. For many, this involved coming off a methadone prescription. On the other hand, some wanted to start taking methadone so they would be able to move into employment. According to the authors, this illustrates ‘just how personal ideas about what constitutes recovery are’.
The barriers to employment articulated by the people interviewed in this study are also to be found in a review of the literature by Cebulla and colleagues (2004).  According to a recent report by Drugscope (2010),these barriers are consistently mentioned throughout the literature. In a number of evaluations of vocational training interventions published in Ireland that included the views of service users, similar findings emerged (Lawless and Cox 2000; Bruce 2004; Lawless 2006). This type of consistent coverage of the salient barriers to employment for drug users signals a degree of consensus on what needs to be tackled by interventions if the employability of drug users is to improve.
The research reported on here illustrates the nature of the challenge that faces both service users and providers when trying to improve the employability of people with drug-using histories. However, this is by no means an insurmountable challenge and for many people with drug-using histories, their chances of returning to the labour market can be improved by services that focus on three key areas: personal development, education and quality vocational training, and consistent and effective treatment that leads either to abstinence or to a measure of stability that is meaningful to the client and reproducible over time. It must also be accepted that, for some people with drug using histories, their physical and mental health may be so compromised, that returning to employment may not be a feasible option.  
Bauld L, Hay G, McKell J and Carroll C (2010) Problem drug users’ experience of employment and the benefit system. Research Report No. 640. Norwich: HM Stationery Office.
Cebulla A, Heaver C and Smith N (2004) Drug and alcohol use as barriers to employment: a review of the literature. Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University.
Drugscope (2010) Pathways to employment in London: a guide for alcohol and drug services. London: Drugscope.
Lawless K (2006) Listening and learning: evaluation of Special Community Employment programmes in Dublin North East. Dublin: Dublin North East Drugs Task Force.
Lawless M and Cox G (2000) From residential drug treatment to employment: final report. Dublin: Merchants Quay Ireland. 

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