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A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness in the UK has risen exponentially, by half a million, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report sets out the categories of health conditions which have increased the most, the age groups seeing the most significant rise in numbers and the sectors and jobs most overrepresented among long-term sick.
We look at the findings of the ONS report and consider what steps employers may take to support employees and manage illness.
The number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has been rising since 2019, from about 2 million people in spring 2019, to around 2.5 million in summer 2022. Although numbers began to rise pre-pandemic, the outbreak of Covid-19 exacerbated the situation, with the number of people economically inactive due to long-term ill health increasing substantially since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.
The ONS report speculates that coronavirus-related illnesses such as long-Covid may provide an explanation for this increase in economic inactivity, in addition to other factors including NHS waiting times and an aging workforce.
The ONS report categorises various long-term health conditions, including progressive illnesses and different mental health conditions. The category which saw the largest rise in the number of people who were economically inactive between 2019 and 2022 was “other health problems or disabilities”. The ONS considers that long-Covid (and related conditions such as post-viral fatigue) are most likely to fit into this “other” category.
The next largest category, “neck or back problems”, saw the largest year-on-year increase between 2021 and 2022. This is speculative but perhaps widespread remote working during the pandemic may have contributed to this.
Whilst older people continue to make up the majority of individuals suffering with long-term sickness, the largest relative increase in those out of work due to long-term sickness was in younger people (aged 25-34), with 97,000 more young people economically inactive in 2022 compared with 2019. This was principally because of different forms of mental illness and nervous disorders, and this was also the only age group to see an increase in depression, bad nerves or anxiety.
Of the 10 largest industries in the UK by workforce size, the study found that statistically former wholesale and retail workers were the most likely to be on long-term sickness. The transport and storage, construction, manufacturing and healthcare sectors also saw significant high rates of long-term sickness. The rates were lowest in Information and communication, public administration and professional and scientific sectors.
The roles that were most impacted by workers who were economically inactive were process, plant and machinery operative occupations as well as “elementary occupations”, which includes jobs such as labourers and cleaners. Meanwhile, professional and managerial occupations had much lower rates. The lowest paid occupations were more represented among the long-term sick.
The ONS notes that individuals whose roles offer less opportunity for flexible/remote working were more likely to have seen higher numbers leaving the workforce. This may be because, at least in part, it’s more difficult for these roles to be carried out while managing long-term sickness, especially as homeworking is not possible.
Managing the implications of long-term sickness has long been an issue for employers, and given the ONS statistics, this will continue to be the case, and seems likely to be a growing issue. Indeed, years before the pandemic (in 2015) the Work Foundation reported it was estimated that by 2030 approximately 40% of the UK’s working age population will have at least one chronic, work-limiting condition.
Mental health remains a key issue, particularly amongst younger workers where this has caused an increase in long-term absence. This is an area for employers to consider and focus on. This can be difficult.
We are ready to discuss any issues, and to assist with designing processes and systems to help employers manage long-term sickness issues. Please get in touch with your usual contact.