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The nation’s underlying ill-health – rather than long COVID or extended waiting lists – is the primary reason for the rise in the number of older workers leaving employment for health reasons, a new study suggests.  

The Health Foundation says the government’s Growth Plan must ensure older workers with poor health who have involuntarily left the labour market altogether are supported to move back into work. This means tailored support to address health and skills barriers to working. 

The Health Foundation’s analysis finds that by the second quarter of 2022, 200,000 older workers (age 50–69) had left employment due to ill-health since the start of the pandemic: the biggest contributor to the recent rise in economic inactivity for that group. Ill-health is defined as 'people reporting they are temporarily sick or injured or long-term sick and disabled'. 

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.  

This increase in poor health and economic inactivity will be concerning for employers and businesses, as it can restrict labour supply and economic growth. People who are out of work because of poor health are more likely to want to work than those who report they have retired.  

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, the study finds. This suggests that underlying poor health is playing a significant role in people leaving employment.   

The analysis also finds that growing waiting lists for treatment are likely to be playing only a minor role in the increased inactivity. Under 70-year-olds reporting cancelled or postponed treatment accounted for only 2% of the group not looking for paid work, and the majority were not in work before the pandemic. 

Recent estimates suggest that that although 80,000-110,000 people are not working because of long COVID, the majority are on sickness leave and still employed. 

The Health Foundation calls for the government to: 

  • focus employment support programmes on the economically inactive with tailored support to address health and skills barriers to working

  • include a strategy to retain older workers, maintaining good health, as part of its Growth Plan 

  • uprate benefits by inflation – providing a safety net until people can find work 

  • commit to publishing the Health Disparities White Paper to address the inequalities in older people working – and keeping people healthy in the first place. 

Alice Major, analyst at the Health Foundation, who led the research, 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 health care 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.’ 

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