When staff travel for four hours a day for work, you know it’s a job they cherish.

The Watford Workshop, which teaches life skills and provides jobs for adults with disabilities, is a place where everyone is happy - the employees literally whistle while they work.

Victoria Birch meets the team.

Just after World War II it became apparent that those maimed in battle still wanted to do meaningful work - even if their injuries didn’t allow them to do it easily.

‘Sheltered Workshops’ were set up to serve that very purpose – giving soldiers tasks to keep their minds occupied.

However, as Gill Nightingale, Partnership Manager at the Watford Workshop, pointed out, the tasks weren’t always needed.

She said: “There were people who had returned from war who couldn’t go back and the sheltered workshops were set up to give them a purpose.

“The work back then was pretty meaningless. They would give them a box of screws to count, once that had been done, someone would take them out the back and empty them, then would give it to someone to start again. Obviously they didn’t realise that was going on.”

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Carol at the workshop

As time moved on, the government was against the philosophy of giving work for the sake of it.

Over the past 55 years, the Watford Workshop has provided meaningful work for their staff, who have disabilities.

The charity, which also runs a commercial aspect, works with major companies and, for a fee, the team help with tasks such as packing, assembling kit and labelling.

Although the war is long gone, Gill is quick to say there are new challenges for today’s workforce. She says there is huge support during school years for those with disabilities but that ends abruptly when they leave. Often they are left isolated with nothing to do.

Two members of her team had been at home for more than ten years before finding out about the workshop.

Often the staff travel for miles to get to there, with one employee spending four hours on a bus to and from Dunstable.

Another employee has been working at the site for 40 years.

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Matthew is one of the team

Gill adds: “It gives you an idea that there’s nothing to support people with adult disabilities. The nearest workshop after Hertfordshire is in Oxfordshire.

“People come here and see others with the same challenges. Everyone is so happy. They make friends, they go to the pub together, some even go on holiday together.”

She adds: “Don’t underestimate our workforce. The fact we have kept the same customers for years is a testament to the hard work the staff put in. There are high quality checks and we work on products worldwide. We are always attracting new business users and small service users.

“Watford Workshop is passionate about providing their service users with meaningful, genuine work contracts. Due to the nature of the disabilities within the workshop, it may take two, three or even four people to deliver the level of output per hour that the contract demands. This is where the charity subsidises this work to secure those workplaces for the adults who so desperately need it. “

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The staff make firm friends and often go on holiday together

The business, in Century Retail Park, Watford, is now looking to branch out to another project, helping those with mental health or health problems get back into work.

Linda McIntyre, CEO, said: “We evolve all the time. Our next venture is looking at office skills for professional people. There are people who have been in senior positions and may feel able to get back to work.

“There are some people who don’t like being paid. They decide they would rather be a volunteer if they don’t want that pressure.

”Volunteers say they will stay for a week, three years later and they are still here. It’s that feeling of making a difference and seeing how bleak prospects are for people.

“It’s working with people who want to work.”

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The team clock in and out to get a true understanding of the working environment

Both Gill and Linda did just that. They started as volunteers after taking a break from high-powered IT roles. Both thought they would be there for a short time but stayed to take on the senior positions. They say it’s just like Hotel California: ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.

However, there is more to the workshop than just work.

The staff also pass on life skills, such as how to cook, wash clothes and look after their own personal hygiene.

Gill adds: “There is reading, writing and numeracy but we also help them to lead full lives and overcome barriers to help them socially. We have a dentist that comes in, also we show them about handwashing and laundry. We encourage them to do it at home.

“We help with job searches, safeguarding, IT, also calling police. Everything is one-to-one and we tailor it to the individual.

“We clock in and clock out. It’s all understanding the way of work and as an employee they have to be in at a certain time.

“They are asked to come in clean and tidy and if they are not, they are asked to go home and change.

“We’re incredibly lucky to have this here in Watford to provide that support.”

The Watford Workshop


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Mohammed at the workshop