Number of employees with ‘work limiting’ health conditions jumps 60 per cent – what can HR do?

Workers increasingly reporting long-term problems, while growing numbers miss work because of NHS waiting times

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There has been a 58 per cent increase over the past decade in the number of people employed in the UK with a work-limiting health condition, Health Foundation analysis has revealed.

The number of people currently working with a health condition that restricts the type or amount of work they can do has risen from 2.4 million people in 2013, to 3.7 million – equivalent to 12 per cent of the working-age population – in 2023.

The analysis, which used data from the Office for National Statistics’ 2023 Labour Force Survey, also found that there was a ‘health pay gap’ of £2.50 an hour for full-time workers. 

Lisa Seagroatt, managing director of HR Fit for Purpose, told People Management employers should acknowledge that all employees have “a life outside of work” that will impact how they might manage at work.

She said this was especially true when it came to work-limiting health conditions, and that line managers have a “key role to play here in terms of understanding their people and recognising when something doesn’t appear to be right and offering support”. 

Dr Bernard Yew, medical director at PAM OH, said there had been a recent “surge in work-related illness”. He said employers should be doing more to avoid risk in the workplace, saying “it’s simply not enough to do a risk assessment and tell employees not to work in unhealthy ways”.

Yew, said if companies were serious about reducing mental health and musculoskeletal (MSK) issues, which The Health Foundation’s analysis showed were the most common work-limiting illnesses, they needed to “make it more difficult for employees to injure themselves”. 

This could mean “redesigning equipment” to reduce MSK issues, or reconsidering workloads and deadlines to prevent burnout, he said. 

Yew added that employers should “re-engineer opportunities for positive social interaction into the working day” to prevent isolation among younger employees. He said “left unchecked, this can diminish their self confidence, leading to anxiety and depression”. 

Younger workers were increasingly impacted by work-limiting health conditions, the research found, with the proportion of people aged 16-34 reporting a condition doubling since 2013, rising from 5.3 per cent to 10.4 per cent.

This meant that 16 to 34 year olds are now as likely as someone aged 45-54 was a decade ago to have a health condition that restricts their work.

The proportion of those young people who struggle with a mental health condition has increased from 1 per cent to 3.8 per cent, the analysis showed. 

Corey Edwards, senior policy and public affairs manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, told People Management that “young workers require particular care regarding work-related health conditions” as they may face more risk owing to a lack of training or “awareness of their employer’s duty of care”. 

Angela Matthews, head of policy and research at Business Disability Forum, added that young people may appear to be more affected by mental health problems than other age groups as they are “more proactive in seeking a diagnosis and getting help”, as well as having a “stronger affiliation with mental health language”. 

Matthews noted that The Health Foundation’s research “highlights the need for all disabled people who want to work and can work to be given the support they need to do so”.

However, she said the term ‘work-limiting condition’ is “unhelpful and inaccurate” as it was often not solely a person’s condition that affects their ability to work. 

Further research found that NHS waiting times have increasingly been impacting workers. More than a third (36 per cent) of the 2,235 UK workers surveyed said they have missed work in the past year while waiting for healthcare, according to a Savanta poll commissioned by the Liberal Democrats. 

Of the young adults surveyed, more than half (54 per cent) said they had missed work as a result of healthcare waiting times.

Matthews said that, now more than ever, people’s ability to work is impacted by external factors such as “a lack of inclusive employment opportunities, a lack of adjustments, long waiting times for one-off and continuous NHS treatment and therapies, poorly funded social care and limited availability of schemes such as access to work”.

“All of these areas have seen little investment from the government and we have seen little in this autumn statement that will change that,” she said.

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, said that while access to private healthcare benefits from employers would help, it would not be a “sustainable” solution for many organisations. 

Instead, he suggested the situation would be helped if employers improved their sickness absence management and have better conversations with their staff to plan for when someone may need time off, and find cover if necessary. 

Seagroatt said some employee assistance programmes would be able to offer healthcare benefits but, where this is not possible, “the best way of supporting employees is to offer a safe space for them to share their health concerns and work with them to find a solution including offering support at work if they need it”.