Long Covid is leading to a surge of people falling out of work, taking early or ill health retirement or stuck at home on long-term sick leave, the latest data from the Office for National Statistics has shown.
The figures add to growing evidence that the long-term and often debilitating symptoms that can follow Covid-19 are having a significant impact on the health and ability to work of the UK’s working-age population.
The latest data, in the ONS report ‘Self-reported long COVID and labour market outcomes, UK: 2022’, shows that, as of July 2022, nearly a quarter (23.3%) of people aged 16 to 64 years with self-reported long Covid (or symptoms at least four weeks after a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19) were economically inactive, or not working or looking for work.
This compared with 21.4% of those without self-reported long Covid, the ONS said.
Between July 2021 and July 2022, the inactivity rate among working-age people with self-reported long Covid grew by 3.8 percentage points. This was significantly higher than the 0.4 percentage points increase among working-age people without self-reported long Covid.
Among working-age people not in full-time education, the odds of inactivity (excluding retirement) for those reporting long Covid 30 to 39 weeks or 40 to 51 weeks after an infection were 45.5% and 34.3% higher, respectively, compared with before infection. This was after adjusting for background rates of inactivity in the labour market, the ONS said.
The relationship between self-reported long Covid and inactivity (excluding retirement) was strongest for people aged 50 to 64 years. In this age cohort, the higher odds of inactivity compared with pre-infection peaked at a 71.2% increase among people reporting long Covid 30 to 39 weeks post-infection.
Compared with before a first test-confirmed Covid-19 infection, employed people with self-reported long Covid were also more likely to experience long-term workplace absence 18 to 29 weeks after infection, the ONS said.
However, this trend generally did not extend beyond this period, it added, though whether that was because people tended to recover or, conversely, were simply leaving their employment was not clear.
Among people aged 50 to 64 years who were in employment 12 to 20 weeks after a first test-confirmed Covid-19 infection, transition to retirement occurred at similar rates for participants with and without self-reported long Covid, at 69.1 and 68.4 retirements, respectively, per 1,000 people per year.
Daniel Ayoubkhani, data and analysis for social care and health at the ONS, said of the figures: “Today’s analysis shows that working-age people are less likely to participate in the labour market after developing long Covid symptoms than they were before being infected with coronavirus.
“Furthermore, this relationship between self-reported long Covid and inactivity for reasons other than education or retirement is strongest among people aged 50 years or above.
“Long Covid may therefore have contributed to the decreasing levels of participation seen in the UK labour market during the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is unlikely to be the only reason, and further research is needed into other possible factors such as indirect health effects of the pandemic.”
Commenting on the findings, Claire Williams, chief people officer at HR software firm Ciphr, highlighted the important role that occupational health professionals can play in helping employers to manage and support long Covid.
“When dealing with any sort of ongoing health issue, including long Covid, employers should ensure they have a robust absence management policy in place so that they can offer all the correct and appropriate support to employees, while also ensuring that they are protecting the company and adhering to a lawful procedure,” she said.
“Employers can look to utilise any health benefits they have in place to help accelerate their employee’s recovery, as well as engaging with a good occupational health provider to ensure staff are getting expert advice from a medical professional.
“As the NHS starts to work through the backlogs and waiting lists that increased during the pandemic, employers can expect to see an increase of employees returning to work from long-term sick leave, as well as candidates returning to the market who have been unable to work due to ill health.”
The ONS has previously indicated that long Covid is one factor, along with lengthening NHS waiting lists, behind an exodus of over-50s in particular from the workplace.
Last month, the ONS also reported that more than three-quarters of people (78%) with long Covid have found the long-term post-viral symptoms have forced them either to stop, pause, reduce or change their work.