Covid not to blame for older employees leaving the workforce, study reveals

While the virus has been blamed for the mass exodus of older workers, analysis shows quitting because of ill-health was already on the up pre-pandemic

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More older workers are leaving employment because of ill-health, but Covid-19 isn’t to blame, analysis has found. 

A study by The Health Foundation found that the percentage of older employees who are inactive because of long-term health conditions had increased by just one percentage point this year, totalling 64 per cent compared to 63 per cent pre-pandemic.

From the start of the pandemic up to the second quarter of this year, the study found that 200,000 workers aged 59-69 had left employment because of ill-health. This marked the biggest contributor to the recent rise in economic inactivity for that age group, it reported.

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But despite older workers leaving work since the start of the pandemic, the analysis found that, by the beginning of 2020, 110,000 more older workers had already quit their jobs because of health issues than in 2014. 

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, said long Covid often exacerbated underlying health issues, and this would naturally make individuals re-evaluate. 

“Being seriously affected by Covid and hospitalised may have made them think about their employment, but until there’s a survey specifically [for] this we don't know,” explained Arshad. 

He added that organisations should know the importance of having “effective health and wellbeing strategies to support employees” and suggested that supportive sickness management procedures would help those with underlying health conditions. 

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The analysis follows recent estimates that although between 80,000 and 110,000 people were not working because of long Covid, the majority were on sick leave and still employed. Additionally, nearly one in four people who were inactive because of ill-health wanted to work or were seeking work, but were unavailable to start because of their health. 

Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, said: “There is now a contingent of people in their 50s and 60s looking to get back into the workforce, but who are shut out for reasons such as age discrimination, a skillset mismatch or a lack of flexible working options to fit around their health and care considerations.” 

Lewis added that employers will continue to miss out on a wealth of underrepresented talent, and cautioned that the UK’s economic growth will continue to stall unless the government and employers step in to offer more workplace flexibility to those with health conditions and “enable them to participate in the workplace, should they wish to”. 

Alice Major, an analyst at The Health Foundation who led the research, said older workers were being “forced out” of the workplace because of health issues, but that the pandemic could not be blamed for the entirety of the problem – which dates back to before March 2020. “There is a longer-term issue with rising levels of ill-health, which can’t all be placed on Covid-19,” said Major. If the government’s growth plan is to accomplish its overarching goals, it must treat “health and wealth as inseparable”, she added.

Meanwhile, ONS labour market figures published today (11 October) revealed that almost 2.5 million people were inactive because of long-term health problems. The data found that the economic inactivity rate increased by six percentage points to 21.7 per cent in June to August 2022, compared with the previous quarter, which had “notably lower” inactivity. 

The increase in inactivity was largely driven by those aged 50-64 years and those aged 16-24 years, and the quarterly rise was down to economically inactive employees on long-term sick leave, which the data revealed to be at a “record high”.