The government is to ask GPs to refer some patients to life coaches, in an effort to help people with chronic illnesses to return to work
“This suggests that many people have interlinked and complex health issues, which might mean that they have more than one health barrier to hinder their return to the world of work.” Darren Morgan, ONS director of economic statistics production and analysis
A steep increase in the number of people on long-term sick leave is partly down to a rise in mental ill-health, according to newly-published data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
The figures show that in the first three months of 2023, more than 2.5m were not working because of ill health. This represents a rise of 400,000 people since the start of the pandemic. ONS analysts said an ageing population accounted for only about 40,000 of this increase.
Of those who have stopped working because of long-term sickness, ONS analysis shows that 38% reported having five or more health conditions – a total of 937,000 people.
Darren Morgan, ONS director of economic statistics production and analysis, said: “This suggests that many people have interlinked and complex health issues, which might mean that they have more than one health barrier to hinder their return to the world of work.”
The most common problems among those not working due to ill health were “depression, bad nerves or anxiety”, cited by more than 1.3 million people – a 40% increase in four years. “The majority of these people reported it as a secondary health condition rather than their main one,” Morgan said.
Other figures show that 36% of all working-age people are living with at least one long-term health condition – up from 31% in the first quarter of 2019.
Figures for depression in the UK have reached an all-time high, with one in six adults affected by it. Women are also twice as likely to suffer depression as men.
The number of people in the ONS’s “other health conditions” category, which includes long Covid, has risen by 53% to 754,000. Back, neck and other musculoskeletal problems have risen by a quarter.
The ONS also drew attention to the number of people waiting for treatment from the NHS, which has risen to 7.4m in May from 4.6m in January 2020.
In an attempt to reduce the numbers on long-term sick leave and get them back to work, the government has said it will encourage GPs to refer patients to life coaches rather than sign them off sick.
Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, is developing a “universal support” scheme under which life coaches could help 50,000 people who are signed off with long-term mental health, debt or other problems resume work. He has expressed frustration that people can be signed off sick after a seven-minute GP appointment, and would like to change the design of “fit notes” (previously known as “sick notes”) to prompt GPs to refer to job support schemes,
Stride also plans to offer businesses and staff tax breaks for providing more occupational health schemes that allow people to continue their jobs. Ministers have said the increased figure is putting pressure on public finances. “The general view is that parity of esteem between mental and physical health, as well as what’s happened with Covid, has meant that more people are being signed off sick,” a government source told the Times.
“It’s led to a huge increase in the size of the welfare state. Nobody is talking about cutting benefits, that would be politically disastrous, but we are looking closely at how we can incentivise people to go back to work.”
The government is likely to breach its own £140bn cap on welfare by £4bn next year as a result of the benefits being paid out to people on long-term sick leave. Currently £53bn is spent on health and disability benefits for working-age adults, up £13bn in two years, and projected to reach £69bn by 2027.
It is worrying to see such a large increase in people who are signed off work as a result of mental health problems – many of which may be related to rising bills as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. The decision to refer people signed off sick to receive life coaching could be a step in the right direction, provided those life coaches are offering genuinely useful support, such as helping people get out of debt, rather than simply trying to force unwell people back into the workplace to reduce the benefits bill.