Number of people off work sick reaches record high

An increase in mental health problems is partly to blame for the rising numbers of people unable to work

17th May 2023 about a 3 minute read
“It is a year since the ONS reported on high worklessness, labour shortages and high inflation and too little has changed. This is holding the economy back by constraining companies’ ability to grow.” Neil Carberry, chief executive, Recruitment and Employment Confederation

In Mental Health Awareness Week, new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that record numbers of people in the UK are now not working because of long-term sickness.

The data shows that two-and-a-half million people are now out of work as a result of health problems. For every 13 people currently working, one person is long-term sick The ONS said that the increase was partly attributable to a rise in mental health issues, and partly the result of people experiencing back and neck pain.

Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, told the BBC’s Today programme that since the start of the Covid pandemic “well over 400,000 more people” were outside of the labour market as a result of ill health. As well as citing mental ill health and back and neck problems, Morgan said there had been “an increase in the category that includes post-viral fatigue, so perhaps long Covid having an impact”.

During the pandemic, millions of people stopped working. In the March budget, the government announced plans to draw people back into work by making changes to the rules for claiming health-related benefits and universal credit. This included abolishing Work Capability Assessments, in order to “separate benefit entitlement from an individual’s ability to work”. From 2026, the government will use another test, currently used to assess eligibility for Personal Independence Payments, the main disability benefit, to decide if someone is eligible for additional payment.

More employers are offering wellness benefits

The ONS figures show that some groups – students, carers and retired people – have started looking for work again. This has pushed the inactivity rate (the main measure of people not in work) down to 21%, the lowest level in three years.

The rise in the number of people too ill to work is worrying, however. Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said that we should be “concerned by the high number of people who are economically inactive because they are sick, and progress on tackling inactivity overall is too slow.” He added: “It is a year since the ONS reported on high worklessness, labour shortages and high inflation and too little has changed. This is holding the economy back by constraining companies’ ability to grow.”

At the same time, surveys are showing that more people are experiencing mental ill health as a result of workplace stress. A survey by Rethinkly, which produces virtual reality software, has found that 23% of employees say they’re suffering from poor mental health due to work stress, while 15% have taken time off work because of mental health problems.

Employers are responding by offering wellness benefits. Research by Socially Recruited, a social media recruitment platform, has found that in the past year job adverts referring to wellness subsidies, budgets, or discounts have increased by 310%, while mentions of employee counselling services have increased by 95%.  Steve McNulty, managing director of Vistage International, a CEO coaching organisation, emphasised that it was important for business leaders to lead by example and look after their own mental health. “Oftentimes business leaders are so worried about their staff, their business and their board members that they forget to worry about themselves,” he said. “The worst thing a company head can do is pay lip service to mental health, but not have the framework in place for staff to use when they need it. Good leadership means creating plans and processes so that everyone can prioritise their mental wellbeing, and perhaps most importantly, find the support and resources they need during difficult periods.”

FCC Insight

The number of people out of work because of long-term sickness, often as a result of mental ill health, is worryingly high. Research suggests that in many of these cases, the mental ill health is caused by workplace stress. It seems that some employers are already taking steps to address this by introducing staff counselling services and wellness benefits, but it would also be good to see employers helping their staff maintain a good work-life balance through, for example, allowing greater flexible working and home working, as well as parental leave and carer leave where needed.