Number of people not working due to illness hits record high

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Thursday 18th May 2023

New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that more than 2.5 million people in the UK are not working due to poor health. The ONS revealed that mental health issues have become more prevalent among young people. There has also been a rise in cases of neck and back pain.

Director of economic statistics at the ONS, Darren Morgan, said that the data shows a significant increase in the number of people not working due to chronic health issues since the pandemic. Before Covid hit, there were around 400,000 people who were not active in the labour market due to health problems. This figure has now reached over 2.5 million, which is a record high. 

Mr Morgan explained that there have been substantial increases in absences among young people due to the rising prevalence of mental health conditions. The number of cases of musculoskeletal issues has also risen significantly. Working from home could be a key factor in the prevalence of long-term back, neck and shoulder pain. There has also been an increase in people taking time off work while battling fatigue and ill health following Covid, highlighting the severity of long Covid. 

ONS figures show that there are currently 2.55 million people who are on long-term sick leave and 33 million people who are working. This equates to one person being on sick leave for every 13 active workers. New data from the Office for National Statistics also revealed that the employment rate has increased during 2023. Between January and March, the rate rose to 75.9%. The rise is largely due to an increase in the number of part-time and self-employed workers. The unemployment rate also crept up. In March, it reached 3.9%. The changes mean that there are now fewer people who are neither looking for a job nor working.
The staggering rise in the number of people who are not working since the pandemic is one of the contributing factors to slower economic growth in the UK in comparison with other nations. Millions of people stopped work during the pandemic, with some taking early retirement. The government has pledged to try to encourage as many people of working age as possible to get back into the workplace to facilitate economic growth and fill gaps where there are shortages within specific industries.

Statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of students, retirees and carers looking for jobs, which has caused the inactivity rate to drop to 21%. This is positive news, but the number of people currently out of work due to poor health will be a concern for the government. 

Chief executive at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, Neil Carberry, said that there has been progress in encouraging people to get back to work but the soaring increase in the number of workers who are off sick is a major worry. 

New ONS data also shows that the number of job vacancies has fallen, pay has increased by 5.6% in the public sector and the number of people on employer payrolls has dropped for the first time in over 2 years. The most significant rises in long-term sickness are associated with mental health disorders and problems that affect the neck and back. Mental health issues have become particularly prevalent among young people since the start of the pandemic, with many people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.

Since the pandemic, many employees have also adopted more flexible working arrangements, which could play a part in explaining the prevalence of musculoskeletal conditions. During lockdowns and periods of restrictions, many people worked from home where they may not have had a suitable office setup. This is a trend that has continued since restrictions were lifted, with many employers choosing to offer employees the option to work from home or embrace a hybrid system.

Working from home can offer benefits for well-being linked to flexibility, but it can increase the risk of back, neck and shoulder pain if employees don’t have suitable equipment. Working from dining room tables, sofas and armchairs, for example, can impact posture, which increases pressure on the spine.