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Our blog 6 min read

Surviving Unemployment During the Pandemic: My Frustrating Experience with the Benefit System

16 Jun, 2023

Sally R describes her personal experience of how unexpected circumstances can lead to crisis, and how the social security system is failing to support vulnerable people.

I have worked from the age of 18, spending 30 years in my last job. As a single parent I managed quite well with my salary, bringing up my 3 children. After the first lockdown, in June 2020, a workplace restructuring plan started and as a result I faced an employment dispute that led to the sudden loss of my job.

The unexpected circumstances caused a significant impact on my mental and physical health. Desperately trying to deal with the employment dispute, represent myself at the Employment Tribunal and cope with the mental anguish the situation brought. I found myself plunging into a financial crisis. My finances had always been stable, and I never had any debts. The Citizens Advice Bureau advised me to speak with Step Change, my bank, and apply for Universal Credit.To begin with I lost all sense of control; I was treated so badly at the Jobcentre, without respect and my dignity was in pieces.

With all this going on I found it impossible to find the mental clarity and strength to complete a Universal Credit application. The system did not treat me with any kindness or understanding that I really deserved during this fragile time in my life. I fought for my self-respect, dignity and despite the extreme difficulties I decided to abandon my application and use my savings to live on until I was well enough to work again.

The benefit system disregards mental health illness and all the trauma a loss brings. My health deteriorated rapidly which was frightening; I was under pressure to apply for any job that was available. Unable to meet the unreasonable conditions attached I had no choice and abandoned my application. At this moment my health was the priority. I had huge warnings of illness such as stroke and high blood pressure which could easily lead to other life-threatening conditions such as heart disease. I had to accept financial hardship, little money to survive so that I could give full attention to my own wellbeing however long it took. To be overlooked and ignored during illness is insulting and degrading treatment. I felt a huge sense of disloyalty from the Government. I had worked for over half of my life and paid all my taxes/ National Insurance. My experience has left me with no confidence in the benefit system.

The most difficult period of two years, where I had little money, was unemployed, and very hurt as a loyal employee of 30 years was the treatment I received. Determined to get back to work again, I had to find my own support system, in absence of the benefit system, and gather a lot of will power and stamina to aid my mental and physical health recovery and re-skill by attending online learning.

During this incredibly challenging time, I was lucky to have my family to help me and my friends to support me through the trauma and pain. My GP was very understanding, she offered me support and made a referral to a great Social Prescriber who helped me through some very difficult hurdles.

Despite this support, there has been an unavoidable long-term impact. I lost my trust and confidence in employment. I do work for 2 days but suffer from depression, anxiety and flashbacks of my trauma. Building the trust will take time. My sense of stability and security has altered; I have a fear and mistrust of systems/institutes. My union failed me, the legal system left me further traumatised and in debt.

We expect that at a time of need or under situations out of your control that you can rely on Social Security. My experience left me quite shocked at how poorly vulnerable applicants are treated. You are expected to keep logs, journals, and show evidence of job searches, applications and interviews. Made to jump through hoops like a circus animal. I had hit rock-bottom, became dysfunctional and unfit to make simple decisions; all these issues were overlooked and brushed aside. The system and its judgmental attitude made me feel like a beggar which left me feeling humiliated. I had always worked to earn a living and not been a burden on the state. There is no discussion on recovery periods, lifestyle changes, financial crisis counselling or breathing space. The Social Security system needs to reflect and rethink their policies and practices.

Written by

Sally R

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