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Record number of people out of work due to long-term sickness

Number of people not working due to long-term sickness has continued increasing, exacerbated by post-pandemic waiting lists and long Covid
06 July 2023 , Kerry Taylor-Smith

Government plans to boost economic growth by returning the long-term sick to employment, with March budget including changes to health-related benefits and universal credit.

A record 2.6 million people in the UK were not working in 2022 because of long-term sickness, according to the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH); while ONS figures show that, since the pandemic, 500,000 more people are now not employed or actively seeking employment.

In response, Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH Head of Policy said: "We know that being in good work is good for people so it's a concern that so many are on long-term sick and, as such, economically inactive.”

According to PwC research, two-in-five businesses saw an increase in employees absent due to mental health-related illness since the pandemic. 

“It is no surprise to see the mental health of the UK’s workforce has suffered,” said Anthony Bruce, Chair of Health Industries at PwC. “Although employers are getting much better at recognising the importance of employee health, they need to ensure wellbeing remains a key priority.”

Jamie O'Halloran, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research said: "The number of people not working due to long-term sickness has been increasing for a long time, and has been exacerbated by post-pandemic waiting lists and long Covid.”

The increase in work-limiting health problems amongst 16- 64-year-olds has risen from 15.4% in 2016, up to 16.4% in 2019 and 18.1% in 2022.

Tony Wilson, Director at the Institute for Employment Studies says the number of people out of work with long-term ill health has been at record levels for most of this year, rising for eleven of the last twelve months, driven by people already out of work before Covid-19 spending longer out of work.

“This is mainly a story of people not coming back into the labour force rather than more people leaving it, although it does seem that a small part of the increase is also a result of people who left work in 2020, which will likely include some people with long Covid,” he added.

“We need to heavily invest in our health and put health at the centre of all policy decisions.”

O’Halloran cited societal factors, like underinvestment in good housing and local services, as some of the long-term issues behind the increasing number of people unable to work because of illness. 

“There is no quick fix to this inactivity problem, but it is imperative that we work to address it. We need to heavily invest in our health and put health at the centre of all policy decisions. Not only would this enable us to tackle the NHS crisis but will lead to people leading healthier lives and create a more prosperous economy."

The government plans to kickstart economic growth by getting the long-term sick back into employment; the March budget included changes to rules around health-related benefits and universal credit to help address the work shortage.

Louise Hosking, CIEH Executive Director of Environmental Health said: “We are in the midst of a global skills crisis. We know that good work is good for people. With the right adjustments, we can bring people back into the workforce. When employers create flexible working opportunities with the right training and ongoing support it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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