Behind the figures – long-term sickness and ability to work

As Alastair Reid covered last month, the post-pandemic world is very different and we’re still uncovering aspects that are a hang-over if you like, or a lag in seeing the effects from a data point of view. But behind statistics is a much more diverse picture.

Take the news this week that ‘Long-term sickness leaving 1.6m UK adults over 50 unable to work’ and my first instinct was to attribute this to long covid following the pandemic, but also reading the statistics and the news around this announcement from the Office for National Statistics show this is a diverse health issues but also an economic one. 

There has also been data shared for economic inactivity by age group in July-September 2019 and July-September 2022. It showed that of the 2.8 million people out of work because of long-term sickness, nearly 60% were aged over 50. In total, almost 40% of economically inactive 50 to 64-year-olds were out of work because of long-term sickness (e.g. delays to hip and knee replacements are cited affecting this group).

A rise in long-term ill health has significantly reduced the size of the UK’s potential workforce across all ages since the pandemic. But it is a particularly large driver of the reduction in available workers in their 50s and 60s, with the number of 50- to 64-year-olds economically inactive – neither working nor job-hunting – up by 375,000 since Covid struck. In total, 27.6% of this age group were now inactive; an increase of 2.4 percentage points since before the pandemic.

Mental health charities say PTSD and related mental health conditions are prevalent since the pandemic. In the Independent it revealed a record 2.5m people are off work with long-term sickenss as unemployment rises again.

Explaining the rise in long-term sick, Mr Morgan of the ONS added: “The strongest increases in ill health have been in the conditions related to mental health, particularly in the young, a rise in people having musco-sceletal issues – so a rise in people having problems connected to the back and neck – with some theories of the increase in home working contributing to that.

“And we’ve also seen an increase in the category of post viral fatigue, so perhaps long-Covid having an impact there.” What’s the answer? Well, there is a contradiction in terms of what government has recently been saying about getting people back to work (and keeping them in work).

For example, on one hand the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, promised a “fundamental programme of reforms” to get millions of people back to work in a keynote speech. The drive, he said, would be the key to fixing the UK’s “productivity puzzle”.

However in contrast the mental health charity Mind has accused ministers of not having properly consulted affected communities before announcing a decision to change the benefits are assessed for those living with a disability or health condition.

This relates to Government plans to reform disability benefits putting vulnerable people with mental health problems at risk from being sanctioned and exposed to harm (according to Mind). The mental health charity said the changes “make little sense” and warned it was “extremely concerned for the safety and income of people with mental health problems” under the new system. Kim Chaplain, a specialist adviser for work at the charity the Centre for Ageing Better, said. “These new stats make clear that long-term sickness is part of the challenge that the government needs to find solutions to.”

Bee Boileau, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the findings were troubling. “This rise in long-term sickness for economically inactive people is very concerning,” she said. “It adds to growing evidence that the UK’s health is worsening.”

So, do we want people in work whatever the cost? The whole self at work means the mental health of someone is just as important to the physical health – more investment is clearly needed to support people.

Jane Thompson
Development and Admin Assistant, CWC

Published by Jane Thompson

Jane Thompson, Freelance Marketing Consultant

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