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HIDDEN PROBLEM

Long covid is shrinking the British workforce

A man sleeps infront of a list of numbers
Reuters/Aly Song
Pervasive tiredness.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

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Millions of people globally have missed work in the last two years because of acute covid-19 infection. But lack of data about long covid—a little-understood condition with a wide range of symptoms—has made it difficult to gauge how much ongoing sickness linked to the pandemic is impacting the workforce.

Now, an analysis from a Bank of England monetary committee member is one of the first to draw links between long covid and the tightening of the labor market. The chronic condition has been one of the main drivers of the shrinking labor pool in the UK, according to a May 9 speech from Michael Saunders, an external member of the bank’s nine-member committee.

The total UK workforce shrank by 440,000 people up to February 2022, compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, just before the pandemic, according to Saunders. “The scale and persistence of this drop in labor supply has been a surprise to many forecasters, including us,” Saunders said in his speech.

Some of the drop was due to “the interaction of Brexit and the pandemic,” which prevented much migration to the UK of people who could fill open jobs, as well as retirements, he said. But there was also a marked drop in participation rates, especially among people aged 50 to 64, he said, most of which was due to long-term sickness.

“I suspect much of this rise in inactivity due to long-term sickness reflects side effects of the pandemic, for example Long Covid” as well as the number of people with other illnesses whose treatment had been delayed by the pandemic, Saunders said.

Saunders also noted that the share of the population who did not want a job because of long-term sickness was at a record high of almost 4.5%, and that there had been “an especially sharp rise” in the number of women not working for that reason.

Data is lacking on long covid’s impact

Saunders’ data are about the UK specifically, which has tracked long covid more carefully than some other countries, including the US, and could prove useful as a bellweather for other places. According to data from the Office for National Statistics cited by Saunders, 1.9% of the adult UK population—1.2 million people—report that their activity is limited “to an extent” or “a lot” by long covid.

A Brookings Institute report from January 2022 suggested that long covid could be substantially worsening the US labor shortage, and could be responsible for as many as 15% of unfilled positions, but lack of data collection and fuzzy questions on census surveys made it difficult to estimate accurately.

Long covid can be also be difficult to diagnose or even describe. Common symptoms can include fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty concentrating.

Ted Drake, accessibility lead at Intuit, a global software company, told Quartz that many people didn’t even realize they had the condition, until they noticed loss of concentration impacting their work. Companies can help by making time for employees to learn about the condition and share their own experiences, he said.

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