The pandemic and long NHS waiting lists have led to a surge in people aged over 50 dropping out of the workforce because of physical or mental ill health, official figures have suggested.
However, having access to occupational health does appear to make a significant difference as to whether people successfully stay in or return to work, the research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found.
The study, ‘Reasons for workers aged over 50 years leaving employment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic: wave 2’, concluded that those who had left work since the pandemic and had not returned were more likely to have a physical or mental health condition or illness (51%) than those who left since the pandemic and returned to work (43%).
The ONS statistics add to growing evidence of the impact of the pandemic, especially long Covid, on ability to work post pandemic.
Earlier this month, for example, an analysis of Labour Force Survey data by the Department for Work and Pensions concluded the number people aged 50 and over leaving the workforce has increased since the pandemic, with many leaving work because of illness, injury or disability.
The ONS figures highlighted that, among those who had a condition or illness lasting 12 months or more, almost a quarter (24%) said their condition or illness had reduced their ability to carry out day-to-day activities a lot. By comparison, this was 10% for those that left since the pandemic and had returned to work.
Mental health and disability were more common reasons cited for not returning to work for the younger aged group in the cohort surveyed.
Adults aged 50 to 59 years were more likely to report mental health reasons (8%) and disability (8%) as a reason for not returning to work when compared with those aged 60 to 65 years (3%).
NHS waiting lists were also a factor. Among adults aged 50 to 65 years who had left work since the start of the pandemic and not returned, just under one-fifth (18%) said they were currently on an NHS waiting list for medical treatment, said the ONS.
Slightly lower proportions were reported for those who had returned to work, having left either before the pandemic (11%) or since the start of the pandemic (15%) and those who had remained active in the workplace (12%), it added.
Among those who left their previous job because of a health-related condition (stress, mental health, illness, or disability), the proportion on an NHS waiting list increased to 35%. A similar proportion (36%) reporting a health condition as a reason for not returning to work said they were on an NHS waiting list.
A higher proportion of adults were on an NHS waiting list if their health condition had lasted for 12 months or more and reduced their ability to carry out day-to-day activities a lot (52%), when compared with those who said a little (27%).
When it came to the impact of offering workplace support on these trends, access to support was likely to be a factor in retaining workers, the ONS pointed out.
Occupational health support
Those who had never left the labour market generally reported having more access to employer support than those who had returned during the pandemic.
Offering flexible working tended to have the most impact in this context, but offering access to occupational health came in second.
Those who had access to OH were more likely to say they were active, still in work and had never left the labour market. There was a fairly even split between those who said they had left work either before or since the pandemic but had now returned to the labour force.
Access to support in work appeared to be more likely for those in public sector employment than services and hospitality.
The majority (95%) of people within the civil service and local government reported access to support, the ONS pointed out, with high proportions of people gaining access to flexible working (80%), occupational health (71%), and reasonable adjustments for health and wellbeing (70%).
By comparison, more than half (51%) of adults working in personal services (for example, hairdressers or tattooists) reported none of the above in terms of access to support. This was followed by 48% working in hospitality and 46% working in arts, entertainment and recreation, the ONS added.