A record number who do not work due to ill health

  • By Nick Edser and Ben King
  • Business reporters

image source, Getty Images

The number of people out of work in the UK due to long-term illness has risen to a new record, official figures show.

More than two and a half million are not working because of health problems, the Office for National Statistics said.

It blamed an increase in mental health problems in younger people and people suffering from back and neck pain, possibly due to domestic work.

The figures also showed that wage pressure remains, with wage increases not keeping pace with rising prices.

However, public sector wages are now growing at their fastest pace in around 20 years.

An increase in part-time workers and the self-employed helped boost the employment rate in the first three months of the year, the ONS said, and the number of vacancies fell again.

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, there were “well over 400,000 more people out of the labor market due to ill health,” Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, told the BBC’s Today programme.

As well as an increase in mental health conditions and back and neck pain, Mr Morgan said there had also been “an increase in the category that includes post-viral fatigue, so maybe for a long time Covid has an impact”.

Generally, for every 13 people currently working, one person is on long-term sick leave.

One of the reasons why the UK economy has done less well than other developed nations has been the case of the missing workers, after millions stopped working during the pandemic.

The latest figures show mixed progress on this front. A significant number of students, carers and even some retirees have started looking for work again, pushing the inactivity rate – the key measure of people not in work – down to 21% – the lowest level in three years.

The increase in the number of people who are too ill to work is likely to worry politicians.

“We should be concerned about the high number of people who are economically inactive because they are sick, and progress in tackling inactivity in general is too slow.

“It’s been a year since the ONS reported high unemployment, labor shortages and high inflation and too little has changed. This is holding the economy back by limiting companies’ ability to grow,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of industry body Recruitment and The Working Life Association.

How can I avoid back and neck problems?

By Michelle Roberts, Digital Health Editor

Sitting with the right posture is one of the best things you can do to prevent back and neck problems.

So it’s easy to see how spending long hours sitting at a desk, hunched over a laptop, could be bad for you.

The latest data from the ONS suggests that musculoskeletal problems are increasing, and probably linked to the shift to home working that happened to many of us during the pandemic.

If you are using a home workstation, the advice is to make sure the top of the computer screen is at eye level and about an arm’s length away from you.

You should be able to relax your shoulders when writing and keep your elbows at 90 degrees.

Also take regular breaks to stand up, stretch and move around.

If you have neck or back pain, talk to your doctor or see a physical therapist.

The employment rate rose to 75.9% between January and March, the ONS said, helped by more part-time workers and the self-employed, but the unemployment rate also rose slightly to 3.9%.

  • the number of people on employers’ payroll fell in April, the first decline in more than two years
  • Job vacancies fell for a 10th consecutive period, with companies holding back on recruitment due to uncertainty about the economic outlook
  • the growth in ordinary wages, without bonuses, was 6.7% in the first three months of the year, but when price increases are taken into account, ordinary wages fell by 2%
  • wage growth in the public sector was 5.6%, which was the highest since 2003
  • the number of working days lost due to strikes rose to 556,000 in March 2023, mainly due to lapses in the health and education sectors.

While the number of vacancies has fallen steadily in recent months, there are still more than one million unfilled positions.

Responding to the latest figures, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said: “It is encouraging that unemployment remains at historically low levels, but difficulties in finding staff and rising prices are a concern for many families and businesses.”

But shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the government was a “drag” on the economy with the family economy “being pushed to breaking point by a further fall in real wages” and with fewer people in work than before the pandemic.

Does long-term illness prevent you from working? Does this cause problems for your business? Share your experiences by sending an email

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