SICK DAYS

The UK's workforce is more ill than it's ever been

Long covid and mental health conditions are diminishing the UK labor force

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Image for article titled The UK's workforce is more ill than it's ever been
Photo: Toby Melville (Reuters)

In the UK, unemployment is low and the cost of living is sky-high⁠—a combination that suggests that more people than ever are going to work. But that’s not completely true.

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London think-tank, has found that more people are off sick from work in the UK than at any time since records began in the 1990s—and that long covid and mental health conditions are some of the biggest reasons why.

This summer, 2.5 million people in the UK were off work primarily because of long-term health problems, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) collected between May and July 2022. It was the highest such statistic since 1993. Of those, 60% had a mental health condition as at least one of their health needs. (It’s common for people off work with long-term sickness to have more than one contributory cause.) Other conditions affecting physical mobility also contributed to bad health, including problems with the legs or feet, back or neck, and arms or hands.

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The long covid effect

While the report doesn’t state exactly how many people are off sick right now with long covid, it does note that more people are being affected by long covid now than ever before, including at the height of the pandemic. The ONS, which altered its methodology for collecting data on long covid this summer, reported its highest-ever number of long covid sufferers in July 2022 at 2.3 million.

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There are also an additional 2.35 million people who aren’t working and who describe themselves as being ill, but don’t cite illness as their primary reason for not being in work. Instead, for example, they might be looking after a family member or find themselves unable to secure employment.

Altogether, the IPPR report paints a picture of a labor force—and therefore an economy—that’s fragile and will likely struggle more in the future. Though unemployment is low at 3.6%, it is expected to rise to 6.5% by 2025. In the longer term, the IPPR report notes that the UK’s working population is also shrinking, with net deaths projected to overtake births in the mid 2030s. Poor health often results in early retirement, studies have shown, which will reduce the workforce further still. Combined with the stultifying effect of Brexit, these labor trends paint a grim portrait of the UK’s economy in the coming years.