The UK’s historically low access to occupational health expertise is one of the key reasons why so many workers with health conditions are falling out of employment, especially older workers, the Society of Occupational Medicine has said.
Its warning follows figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that have suggested the number of workers who are economically inactive because they are long-term sick is now at a record high of 2.5 million.
The ONS pointed to a combination of long Covid and record NHS waits as being factors behind the trend, but SOM has also highlighted the UK’s low levels of occupational health coverage.
SOM held a webinar last week on worklessness because of ill health, with the Bank of England and Institute for Employment Studies. This considered what is driving rising worklessness because of ill health and what employers and government should do about it.
One of the speakers, Glasgow University’s Professor Ewan Macdonald, chair of the Academic Forum for Work and Health, said: “In the UK there is a lack of competent advice for workers with health problems, because of low levels of occupational health coverage. The evidence is that organisations and individuals who have access to occupational health have lower rates of falling out of work.
“Most workers in their fifties and sixties will have health issues dealt with by GPs or in hospital. But an overloaded NHS does not have time to address the employment implications of an individual’s condition.
Universal access to OH
“In addition, hospitals are organised in silos dealing with different issues such as respiratory, cardiac, gastroenterological, mental health etc.; while GPs (in the short time they have with their patients) can generally only deal with one issue at a time,” he added.
Research by the university had shown that the number of medical conditions people have strongly predicts the likelihood of failing to return to work, Professor Macdonald pointed out.
The ONS figures added weight to SOM’s campaign for universal access to OH, argued Professor Macdonald. “We should aim to have universal access to OH for all workers; and, individuals in their 50s should have health screening in workplaces to identify their risk of job loss so that interventions can be proactive rather than reactive,” he said.
“This approach does not just rely on more doctors and professionals who are trained in OH, as they are not always available. Occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists are also an important resource,” he added.
SOM also pointed to a recent speech by work and pension secretary Chloe Smith, where she said: “I’m aware of the challenges for small businesses in particular, in delivering high-quality occupational health, but I want to help them by aiming high – every business will want to make great provision available for employees.”
Separately, the health think-tank The Health Foundation has argued Covid-19 is not to blame for the rise in older workers leaving employment because of ill health.
The nation’s underlying ill health – rather than long Covid or extended waiting lists – was the primary reason for the rise, it suggested.
It called on the government to do more to ensure older workers with poor health who have involuntarily left the labour market altogether are supported to move back into work. This, it argued, meant a need for more tailored support to address health and skills barriers to working.
By the second quarter of 2022, 200,000 older workers (or those aged 50-69) had left employment because of ill health since the start of the pandemic, the foundation said in its own analysis of the trends.
“Before the pandemic, people were retiring later and inactivity was falling overall. But this masked the growing number of 50-64-year-olds who were inactive due to ill health. By the start of 2020, there were an additional 110,000 older workers who were no longer working on health grounds compared to 2014,” the foundation said.
“Pre-pandemic, the proportion of those who are inactive with a long-term health condition was around 63%, but this has increased only slightly to 64% post-pandemic. This suggests that underlying poor health is playing a significant role in people leaving employment,” it added.
Health Foundation analyst Alice Major said: “Increasing numbers of older workers are being forced out of work due to ill-health. Covid-19 has played a factor, through long Covid and the healthcare backlogs, but our analysis shows the problem goes back to before the pandemic. There is a longer-term issue with rising levels of ill health which can’t all be placed on Covid-19.
“If the government’s Growth Plan is to achieve its overall aims, it must treat health and wealth as inseparable. Focusing on supporting people with ill health back into employment can boost labour supply and make a substantive contribution to growth,” Major added.