Many people presumed to have taken early retirement are in fact experiencing long-term mental ill-health, figures show
"We’ve got a perfect storm. People’s mental health has probably never been worse, and we’re in a climate where it’s more acceptable to be transparent about it and seek support. Those things together have resulted in a situation where there’s so much pressure on the NHS and the traditional pathways to get support." Bertrand Stern-Gillet, chief executive, Health Assured
The government is keen to get economically inactive people back into work – but an analysis of the figures suggests that many of those people are experiencing long-term mental illness, the Times has reported.
There are now nearly nine million people who are economically inactive – which means they are neither in work nor looking for work. In January, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt said that his message for people over-50 who had left the workplace was that life “doesn’t just have to be about going to the golf course”.
The actuarial and financial consulting firm Lane Clark & Peacock has pointed out that the increase in the numbers of economically inactive people, now at a seven-year high, is not down to early retirement, as the government has argued. In fact, it notes, there are fewer people of working age retired now than at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.
John Godfrey, chairman of Business for Health, a group campaigning for investment in preventative health and care, said: “Jeremy Hunt is not quite right. Statistically, it is much more about long-term sickness.”
The Bank of England and Imperial College Business School have also said the “majority” of the increase in economic inactivity between 2019 and 2022 is a result of an increase in long-term sickness. About 2.5 million people fall into this category, and data published by the Office for National Statistics show that economic inactivity because of long-term sickness or disability increased by 462,000 people between 2019 and 2022. This is more than the 41,000 increase that might be expected due to the changing age composition of the population. The think tank IPPR said in December that, amongst people who were out of work because of poor health, the most common condition was mental illness.
Bertrand Stern-Gillet, chief executive of Health Assured, a provider of employee assistance programmes, told the Times: “We’ve got a perfect storm. People’s mental health has probably never been worse, and we’re in a climate where it’s more acceptable to be transparent about it and seek support. Those things together have resulted in a situation where there’s so much pressure on the NHS and the traditional pathways to get support. You end up in a spiral, people can’t get support, they get worse and that’s when they’re off on long-term sickness.”.
Stern-Gillet said the nature of calls to his company’s assistance phone lines had changed in recent years. Between January 2022 and the start of this year, he said there had been a doubling of what the company classified as “high risk” calls which can be as serious “as someone taking steps to complete suicide, or coming up with a plan”.
Long NHS waiting times to begin treatment for mental health issues had led to more people seeking help from their employers, said Kayleigh Frost, Health Assured’s head of clinical support: “If you throw in the cost-of-living crisis, paying for private counselling will be a luxury for many people. That demand is shifting over to [employers]. We’ve never been set up as a crisis support service but we’ve had to accept that over the last 12 to 18 months. We are the only option for many individuals,” she said.
Godfrey said that employers were increasingly aware of such issues and doing their best to refer more quickly to therapies via health insurance schemes: “It means they don’t sit there for six months on an NHS waiting list, getting worse and being perpetually signed off by their GP.”
Rachel Suff, a senior policy adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR staff, said there had been a rise in benefit claims related to mental health problems by young people. Between July 2021 and July 2022, the number of working-age people newly awarded disability benefits doubled, she said. About a third of the new claims are for mental or behavioural conditions, rising to 70% among claimants under 25. “This is the workforce of now, and in the future,” she said. “There is public policy focus on those over 50, but there should be a spotlight on what’s happening with younger workers.”
Much has been made of the claim that, since the pandemic, people in their 50s and 60s have been taking early retirement to enjoy a life of leisure. The statistics, however, paint a very different picture. It seems that a large proportion of people who are economically inactive are in fact experiencing poor health – and, in many cases, that poor health is the result of mental illness. Many people who are failing to receive help from an overstretched NHS are turning instead to their employers for support. The government now needs to shift its focus from trying to get early retirees off the golf course to equipping the NHS with the resources that will enable it to support the growing numbers with chronic mental ill-health.