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The number of working-age people with long-term health conditions has increased significantly over the past decade, and projections from the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre suggest this is only likely to grow. This will have a major impact on individuals and their families, whether they are in employment or not. There are also wider societal impacts of worsening working-age health to consider, including decreased productivity, an increased burden on the public finances and challenges for employers.

This blog reviews the key trends influencing workforce health and productivity, drawing from new research published by the Health Foundation. Our findings suggest that current policies have not done enough to address developments in the health of the working-age population. Promoting a healthier workforce will require long-term thinking and concerted action across sectors. In response, we’re announcing a new Commission for Healthier Working Lives to build consensus on the actions needed to address these issues.

Key trends policymakers and employers need to know

So, what do we know about the health of the working-age population? There are five key trends that policymakers and employers should be aware of.

1. More working-age adults are reporting long-term health conditions and around half say it limits the type or amount of work they can do

According to our analysis, 19% of 16–64-year-olds reported a 'work-limiting’ health condition in 2023, equivalent to around 8 million people. This figure represents an increase of about 2 million people over the past 10 years. Projections from the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre suggest that this number will increase further in the years ahead, with 500,000 more 20–69-year-olds expected to be living with major illness between 2019 and 2030.

2. Levels of health-related economic inactivity are higher as a result

There are an estimated 2.6 million people of working age who say they are unable to participate in the workforce primarily due to long-term sickness – 470,000 higher than before the pandemic. A large proportion of this group have been out of work for a considerable time. The recent increase, also reflected in a sharp upturn in ‘incapacity’ benefit claims, carries costs for the public finances – including an extra £6.4bn a year in welfare costs, according to estimates from the OBR. But it also brings significant human costs. These include the challenges of living with poor health, which can increase the risk of poverty and lead to further deterioration in health. This all points to an enduring policy issue.

3. There are also around 3.7 million people with work-limiting health conditions who are in employment – a group whose needs have received less attention to date

Positively, this number partly reflects wider labour market improvements and a reduction in the ‘health employment gap’. But it also reflects greater prevalence of health conditions among the working-age population. Employers and government need to recognise the barriers this group faces in progressing or maximising their contribution at work. Our analysis reveals a significant ‘health pay gap’, with typical hourly earnings of workers with work-limiting health conditions being £2.50 less than those without such conditions. Alongside this, sickness absence rates are now at their highest level since 2008.

4. The types of health conditions people are experiencing are changing, including a sharp rise in workers with mental health problems

There's been a 240% increase in the number of employed people citing work-limiting mental health conditions over the past 10 years. Part of this could be down to increased reporting, which itself offers an opportunity to provide more effective support for people to thrive in work. However, supporting employees with mental health conditions presents a different challenge to the more traditional focus on musculoskeletal conditions.

5. This isn’t only an issue affecting people at the end of their working lives

Health issues do become more common with age. However, they are increasingly arising among working people of different ages. For younger workers, aged 16–34 years, the rate of work-limiting conditions has doubled over the past decade, quadrupling for mental health conditions. This also presents a new challenge: health conditions that persist and fluctuate throughout people’s careers, potentially affecting their lifetime employment opportunities and earnings.

Why a commission and why now?

Current approaches to employment, welfare and health are struggling to keep pace with these changing patterns of ill health among the working-age population. Government and employers need to go further to promote good health and overcome health-related gaps and inequalities in employment and earnings. Policy discourse can seem reactive and lacking a comprehensive plan to address this broader set of challenges. A new Commission for Healthier Working Lives, supported by the Health Foundation, will explore this further.

So, what will the Commission do? We’re bringing together a range of experts – from business leaders to health professionals – to examine these issues in the round. Our aim, through a dedicated programme of research, public involvement and stakeholder engagement, is to shape a bold, new approach to work and health policy and practice.

We’re looking for government and employers to step up to promote better working-age health and a thriving workforce. This will help individuals, employers and our economy. We want to build consensus on key actions, but we know we can’t do this alone. We also need to learn from others, both from across the UK and internationally. If you want to help shape the future of work and health, then please sign up to stay involved.

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