Mothers, older workers and disabled talent are key to getting the UK working, think tank says

Resolution Foundation says talent pools are there, but commentators flag potential barriers that could impede recruitment and retention

Credit: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

A think tank is calling for government efforts to increase numbers in the UK workforce to concentrate on helping more mothers back into work and assisting older workers and those with disabilities stay in it – not persuading older workers to “unretire”.

In its latest report, Post-pandemic participation, the Resolution Foundation found that economic inactivity among all adults has risen by 830,000 since the start of the pandemic, with three quarters (76 per cent) of this increase coming from the over 50s.

The findings have led to calls for action to encourage more people back into work ahead of any proposals on tackling economic inactivity in the spring budget next month. However, the report warns against focusing policy efforts on trying to entice the most recent ‘Covid cohort’ – early retirees who left employment during the Covid pandemic – back into the labour market.

It says increased labour market exits during the pandemic were disproportionately from higher than normal retirements among higher-paid professionals, and the Resolution Foundation argues that with many of these adults living comfortably in their early retirement, government policy is unlikely to prompt them to “unretire”.

Instead, the think tank recommends that policy makers focus on three groups: older workers, mothers and people with ill health or disabilities, whose employment rates have proven to be responsive to policy changes in the past. But what barriers might organisations face when recruiting and retaining these cohorts?

Workers on sick leave ‘want to stay attached to their job’

Louise Murphy, economist at the Resolution Foundation, says Britain did a great job of getting more people into work in the 2010s and needs to reboot progress on this by supporting working mothers in low-income families and helping people who need to take periods of time off for ill health stay attached to their jobs.

The report states that people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness or disability are four times more likely to re-enter work after a few months of sick leave than they are to re-enter work after a period of more than two years, emphasising the importance of retaining the worker-employer relationship with early intervention.

To help with this, the Resolution Foundation suggests that policy makers consider introducing a ‘right to return’ period, during which employers must keep jobs open to workers who are away from work as a result of sickness or disability. 

It follows previous data from the Health and Safety Executive that found there were more than 1.8 million work-related ill-health cases – new or longstanding – in 2021 to 2022, with the primary causes of ill health being work-related stress, depression or anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders and exposure to coronavirus at work.

Ensure disabled employees not forced back into work

Angela Matthews, head of policy and research at the Business Disability Forum, says an inclusive economy is about ensuring everyone who can and wants to work has the means, support and barrier-free opportunities to do so. “The reasons for disability-related unemployment are complex and are not about being disabled. They are about the lack of policy interventions that provide sustainable and consistently reliable solutions that help,” she says.

"Employers have a role in ensuring that everyone who wants to apply for jobs in their organisation can do so, free from barriers and discrimination, but they are not responsible for the long-term inactivity of disabled people in the labour market.”

A key action businesses can take following the pandemic is to ensure disabled employees are not being forced back into a way of working that doesn't suit them, Matthews advises. “We are increasingly hearing that disabled employees are being told to come back to the office while they are still waiting for Covid-related adjustments from employers and ongoing treatment from the NHS. The Covid crisis is not over for many disabled employees in our UK workforce,” she adds.

Caroline Casey, founder of The Valuable 500, says nothing less than “systematic change” in inclusion practices is needed to incentivise and encourage disabled workers back into the workforce. “Employers will struggle to recruit and retain disabled workers who left the workforce if they still haven’t adopted an inclusive culture and design,” she warns.

Single parents ‘want to work’

Considering the return of mothers to the workforce, Victoria Benson, CEO of Gingerbread, focuses on single parents, who she says are valuable to our economy and want to work, but will require flexibility and support. "This government needs to work with employers to ensure more quality part-time and flexible roles are made available and that single parents can access the childcare that they need. It's critical that single parents are prioritised on the political agenda as the government seeks to grow the economy and re-employ unemployed people," she says.

According to Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, it is clear that the labour market is not working for people with caring responsibilities, the majority of whom are women. She notes that last year the number of people leaving the workforce to care for family steadily increased for the first time in three decades. "If we truly want to get Britain and the economy working again, we must make flexible working the default," van Zyl says. "Parents and carers need a better supply of high-quality, part-time and flexible roles."

Nicola Inge, social impact director at Business in the Community, agrees, highlighting recent research that shows a 5 per cent rise in the number of women leaving the workplace to look after family, “meaning that many employers are missing out on key talent because balancing work and care has become impossible for some”, she says.

Inclusive recruitment practices 

Reverting the focus to older workers, Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, says it is important to develop age-inclusive practices to increase workforce representation in these areas, as we have seen bias and exclusion in the past. “There needs to be education of the workforce in this area; however, we should be focusing on inclusive practices holistically to ensure we don’t have gaps elsewhere,” he says. 

Similarly, Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, says organisations should draw on inclusive recruitment practices to help them to tap into the broadest and most diverse pools of talent. “Retention is just as important, and organisations need to create working cultures and practices that support and appeal to people at different life stages and with different needs. Flexible working practices, work adjustments and a strong focus on health and wellbeing will be key,” she adds. 

And this means translating talk into positive action, according to Mona Mourshed, founding global CEO of Generation, who argues that although companies talk about reskilling, research suggests that those aged 45 and over face “significant hiring bias if they seek to transition to a new career”, she says.

“To tap into the pool of skilled and experienced older workers, employers can prioritise changing their hiring and promotion practices. For example, this could be incorporating demonstration and skills-based interviewing that values a wider range of experience to encourage a range of candidates to apply for jobs.”