New research shows sharp increase in adults taking long-term sick leave

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Monday 6th March 2023

New research has shown a sharp increase in the number of UK adults taking long-term sick leave.

A report compiled by Lane, Clark and Peacock (LCP), a pensions and health consultancy, suggests that there has been a significant rise in workforce absence due to long-term health issues. Since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the number of people taking long-term sick leave has increased by over 350,000.

The study also revealed that workforce inactivity, which is defined as people who are of working age who are not working or looking for employment, has soared. The number has risen by more than 515,000 people since 2020. The figure has not been impacted significantly by people taking retirement early, according to the report. 

Data from a survey conducted by the Labour Force indicates that there are almost 2.5 million working-age adults who are currently on long-term sick leave. The number of people who are deemed economically inactive has risen to 8.9 million. 

The study raises concerns over the declining health of the nation, as well as ringing alarm bells linked to economic growth. Ministers are worried that an increase in economic inactivity will hamper growth as well as reducing the size of the UK workforce.

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is expected to address the issue and launch a review of policies designed to boost economic activity and he may make an announcement about new measures to tackle the problem when he takes to the floor of the House of Commons in March to outline the spring budget. 

Some analysts have suggested that an increase in those taking early retirement has contributed to a smaller workforce. However, the LCP report highlights long-term health issues, which could be caused by NHS backlogs and treatment delays. People who have been waiting for operations or had treatment paused or postponed are more likely to need time off. Workers with chronic health conditions may also not be able to work because their condition isn’t being managed as effectively as it could be. 

Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, report co-author, suggested that pressures on the NHS have increased the risk of employees taking sick leave. He also flagged a lack of investment in health, which would contribute to people living longer, healthier lives.

Former pensions minister and co-author of the LCP report, Sir Steve Webb, urged the government to focus on the root causes of long-term sick leave rather than on trying to entice people who have taken early retirement back into the workplace. 

In contrast, data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that early retirement has had a noticeable impact on activity levels. Since the pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in people retiring during their 50s and early 60s. 

The Department for Work and Pensions is currently conducting a review into workforce activity and participation with a view to introducing policies and measures to address causes of inactivity and boost workforce numbers and activity levels. Ministers have also stated that there are plans in place to clear NHS backlogs and reduce waiting times. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that there was an increase of 353,000 people on long-term sick leave between December 2019 and February 2020 and October to December 2022. The number of people who retired during the same period was 15,000.