When we think of people with health problems, we usually think of hospital wards and doctors surgeries. Actually, a more realistic view is people on the office or factory floor.
The 37 million people that make up the UK working age population are undoubtedly the most considerable economic resource we have. Their health effects how productive they are in work, and even their ability to work, and consequently is of huge individual and national significance.
It is therefore a shocking statistic that in the UK today, around one in three employees have a long-term health condition, and this is likely to get worse as we get older and work until we are 68.
For many it is manageable and presents little problem to working - and with the right support from health professionals, employers, colleagues, and from friends and family, it is likely to stay that way. Less fortunately for many others, health is a workplace issue - with four out of ten employees (42 per cent) with health conditions feeling it affects the amount and type of work of they do.
Mental illness (including depression and anxiety) and musculoskeletal conditions (including back pain and arthritis) are common among people of working age, both affecting around one in six people. Some 14 per cent of the working age population (around 5 million people) are thought to have multiple health conditions, often making work even more difficult - with almost two thirds (62 per cent) of employees who have both mental and physical health conditions saying it affects their work.
In this context, many people with health conditions do not get appropriate support, and fall out of work. Disappointingly, only 60 per cent of people with long-term conditions are employed, falling to 43 per cent for people with common mental health conditions, and just 8 per cent for people with schizophrenia. Again the effects are exacerbated for people with more than one condition - less than a quarter (24 per cent) of working age people with both a mental and physical health condition are in work. Unemployment and worklessness often leads to social exclusion and to poverty - considerable challenges for both individuals and for society.
This is despite many people with long-term health conditions wanting to work, but finding stigma, and a lack support and flexibility from employers to be impenetrable barriers. The picture is even more disappointing given we know that good-quality jobs - that is work that is fulfilling, secure and fair -can be beneficial for health, and that a return to work is often seen by individuals as a marker of their recovery.
The challenge therefore is providing the right support to help people with health conditions who want to work, and can work, to find good quality jobs. In addition, we need to address misconceptions about what health conditions mean for working, and to help employers to provide appropriate work and appropriate support to allow people to prosper.
The combined challenges of an ageing population, higher retirement ages, and increasing chronic conditions mean that this challenge is set to continue. It is in this context that Lancaster University's The Work Foundation publish our Policy Challenges paper, 'Investing in a workforce fit for the future' calling for government action on the health of the UK workforce. The approach to this must be broad, it is not just an issue for the health system or for the welfare system, but working age health is about the economy, business, productivity, and most importantly, about those individuals who want to work but need more help to do so.
We call on government to:
- Incentivise and support employers to take action on workforce health, through fiscal incentives, developing appropriate insurance packages, and providing evidence-based, practical guidance and support.
- Support people with long-term conditions to remain in and return to work, through encouraging the health sector to value the role of work, and improving access to and the quality of current government provision of both in work and back to work support for people with health conditions.
- Drive local action on workforce health, through increasing engagement of local providers in evidence-based back to work support, making the case to local businesses and engaging them in the workforce health conversation, and sending a clear signal that workforce health should be seen as a priority issue locally.
- Support older workers with health conditions, through improving access to specialist in work and back to work occupational health support, taking proactive steps to change employer attitudes about older workers and encouraging them to plan ahead for the reality of their ageing workforce
Investing In A Workforce Fit For The Future: Challenges for the UK Government is available here: http://www.theworkfoundation.com/Reports/388/Investing-In-A-Workforce-Fit-For-The-Future