Recent findings from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicate that the number of individuals unable to work due to long-term health issues or sickness has reached an all-time high. More than 2.5 million people fall into this category, representing a significant portion of the workforce. Figures show that around one person is long-term sick for every 13 people currently working.
While the ONS report provides a snapshot of the issue, understanding the underlying causes is essential to formulating appropriate solutions. Likely factors which contribute to this increase in long-term health-related work absences are:
- Ageing population: With an ageing population, the likelihood of chronic health conditions and disabilities increases. As people live longer, they are more susceptible to age-related illnesses such as arthritis, heart disease and dementia, which can lead to long-term absences from work.
- Mental health challenges: Mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders, are on the rise, particularly in younger people. These conditions can severely impact an individual’s ability to maintain employment, causing long-term work absences.
- Occupational factors: Certain professions, such as those involving physically demanding labour or high levels of stress, can contribute to long-term health problems. Repetitive strain injuries, back problems and workplace-induced stress are just a few examples of conditions that may force individuals out of work for extended periods.
- Inadequate workplace support: A lack of adequate support and accommodations within the workplace can exacerbate health issues. Employees who face challenges in accessing flexible working arrangements, reasonable adjustments or appropriate rehabilitation may be more likely to take prolonged sickness absence or even leave the workforce entirely.
The increasing number of individuals unable to work due to long-term health issues or sickness has far-reaching consequences. Firstly, there is the economic cost of having a significant proportion of the workplace unable to contribute and the financial strain on individuals who cannot work due to long-term sickness. Secondly, there is the psychological and social impact of being unwell for a long period of time, the toll it takes on socialising with colleagues and the effect of this on an employee’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
To reduce the large number of employees on long-term sickness absence, a multi-faceted approach is required. Employers should continue to support and prioritise the physical health and wellbeing of their employees. They can do so by offering flexible working arrangements, reasonable adjustments and initiatives to promote mental health and physical wellbeing. Employers can also offer benefits for employees and invest in accessible and affordable healthcare services (as proposed in a new government White Paper on Health and Disability), including mental health support. Employers can then raise awareness of these initiatives to ensure their employees know what help is available to them. Such measures should help to minimise the impact of long-term health issues.
Read more here on government guidance for employers on helping employees return to work.