Lived experience as an asset

In our blog post of 13th December titled “Employment and the road to recovery” we looked at why employment is so important to people with lived experience of multiple complex needs (MCN) and the difference it can make to people’s lives.


In this, the next blog in the series sharing the learning from our employment programme, we wanted to take a look from the other perspective, that of the employer.  As we talked about in our previous blog post, it’s not all a one-way street and the benefits to an employer in the recovery and support sector can be huge, having a very positive impact on the organisation, the service being provided and the whole staff team.

What are we talking about though? What do we mean by benefits to an employer?  After all, any member of staff you employ brings benefits, right! That’s why you employed them in the first place.

Well, what we’re talking about here is the unique perspective and set of skills that people with lived experience of MCN often bring to the table, in addition to the skills, experience and abilities they have specifically relating to the role.  

Quote from Nelida, our Service User Engagement Co-ordinator:

“For us, at FLSE, employing people who had experienced multiple and complex needs was essential to achieve our outcome of embedding co-production and to role model service user involvement in the wider system. Having lived experience is an asset when working with people with support needs.

For far too long, there has been a divide in services between ‘professionals’ and ‘service users’, when life, (as needs and vulnerabilities), is much more complex than that. We do not live in silos where someone is either in need or a professional…

Our Engagement Workers have helped us develop a more open way of working, that breaks down barriers built in services by limiting labels. This argument does not undermine the work that many people who have not used support services do; the ability to empathise goes beyond having experienced the same problems, however, in my experience, there are certain gains that can only be achieved by having lived experience. Some examples include: acting as role models, being an aspiration and an inspiration for others that have lost faith in the system.

They/we are also an asset when engaging with people who may be finding it difficult to connect with ‘only professionals’ in services. In our case, they have also been crucial in supporting system change, as these cannot improve without the input of those who have first-hand experience. 

For me, the next step in tackling the stigma that people with complex needs experience is to model openness throughout organisations and systems, leading up to having people with lived experience of using services in top decision-making roles, and most importantly this being acknowledged and recognised as an asset.”

Key benefits for the employer and organisation

Employees with lived experience can offer a unique insight into service user experience – a knowledge of the system/services as experienced from the inside.

This is the ‘service user experience’ of your organisation that cannot be taught. They know the system or the services as experienced from being within it, travelling through it and even how it feels to be lost and trying to navigate it. They can empathise from a unique perspective and there is a shared understanding and knowing that cannot be gained through training and research. The added positive is that they can also show clients how to do that too.

“Working with someone as a peer really gives us a unique point of contact. Everyone is an individual on their unique path, and we may have different experiences and feelings about those experiences, but we both know what it can be like to experience and work to overcome complex issues in our lives.”

Co-production and Engagement Worker

Clients may be able to trust a service that employs people with lived experience more easily. 

By employing people with lived experience, it can create a sense for the client that the service is “on their side’ and really understands them. It also helps to break down the ‘them and us’ imbalance within services.

Employees with lived experience are often able to become a bridge between the client and the service.

They are able to meet the client where they are, in an authentic way, taking into account their language, behaviour and how they are expressing themselves. They are then able to relay that to the service in a way that both parties can feel heard and understood; like having a mediator who can understand both ‘languages’.

Employees with lived experience of MCN have often carried out a lot of self-reflection and work on themselves and their relationships with others to become ready for employment. 

They have had to be very honest with themselves about where they are at and what they need to work through, they will have good self-care and emotional intelligence in relation to work, they will have learnt how to be assertive and how to look after themselves.  Not only are these valuable assets for an employee to have but also provide great role-modelling when working with clients.

Employees with lived experience of MCN tend to have an enhanced ability to connect with clients.

They’re able to connect in a professional and properly boundaried way but without being clinical, with empathetic mannerisms and approaches and have more of an awareness of not speaking in abbreviations or acronyms.

Employees with lived experience of MCN often have enhanced patience and belief in clients, including when they are struggling – They bring hope when it may feel as if there is none.  

They know what it’s like to be where the clients are now and they also know and can demonstrate that change is possible.

“In the ‘bad times’ of MCN it can feel like you’ll never get anywhere and moving forward is impossible.  In those times it’s important to meet people with lived experience who are in a good place, who have been where you are and come out of the other side and not only that, can guide you to do the same and support you on that journey”

Co-production and Engagement Worker

It’s not just in our project either… we checked!

Just to be sure that all of these benefits aren’t unique to the BHT Fulfilling Lives SE project we checked with another project working in the field – Hastings Young People’s Service providing supported accommodation for young people in Hastings, East Sussex.  

Here’s what Simon, their Senior Manager said:

“Here at Hastings Young Peoples Service, we recognise the importance of lived experience when working with clients with a range of complex needs, that is why we actively recruit new staff and volunteers who have this to call upon. Although not all staff will have this they still provide excellent support with innate skills around empathy and understanding. Any areas in their knowledge that are lacking can be mitigated by appropriate training, in the case of understanding the clients’ journey, this would be in PIE and TIC.

However, the value of experience, to be able to reflect first hand how complex needs affected their lives and what aspects of support they wished were available at the time, is invaluable. Colleagues who have lived experience operate with a greater degree of empathy, enthusiasm and motivation. They are able to pick up on the subtle nuances of behaviour that can lead to earlier intervention of vital support.

To date we have 6 members of the team who have lived experience across a range of complex needs including homelessness, mental health issues and substance misuse. All of them are valued and crucial to the success of the service”.

So…if you don’t already, isn’t it about time you considered employing more people with lived experience of MCN?

In our series of blogs around employing people with lived experience of MCN, of which this is the second, we want to unpick some of the key elements and practices that make employment successful, both for the employee and for the employer.

We are also currently creating a resource for employers around employing people with lived experience of MCN and how to do it well. If you would like a copy of this resource once it’s published, please contact andree.ralph@sefulfillinglives.org.uk  or nelida.senoran-martin@sefulfillinglives.org.uk


Author: Andree Ralph

For more information please email:

Andree.Ralph@sefulfillinglives.org.uk

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