More than a third of working age people are suffering prolonged physical or mental health issues and the number with many issues has soared in the last four years.
Musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health were the most significant causes of long-term health conditions and reasons for being out of work, while those in work are absent more often.
Analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found 36% of working age Brits had at least one long-term health condition in the first quarter of 2023, up from 31% in 2019 and 29% in 2016. The ONS said this meant two million more people had been afflicted by a long-term health condition since 2019.
Only 64% of working-age people reported having no health conditions. Conversely, the proportion of people reporting having one or two health conditions has steadily increased from 21% in 2016 to 25% in 2023 – a rise it estimated from 8.5 million to 10.6 million people.
The figures come as the number of people economically inactive because of long-term sickness has risen to over 2.5 million people, up more than 400,000 since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ONS analysed responses to the quarterly Labour Force Survey made up of approximately 100,000 individuals from 40,000 UK households and its results come as government has published two key consultations focused on improving workplace health and occupational services.
For those economically inactive because of long-term sickness, 38% reported having five or more health conditions, up from 34% in 2019.
“This suggests that those who are inactive because of long-term sickness have increasingly complex health issues, the majority with more than one health barrier to them returning to the labour market suggesting that many have interlinked and complex health issues,” the ONS said.
Mental health was the largest contributor with 53% of those inactive because of long-term sickness reporting that they had depression, bad nerves or anxiety, up from 48% in 2019. However, the majority reported it as a secondary health condition rather than their main one.
Where a main health condition was musculoskeletal in nature, more than 70% reported they had more than one type of musculoskeletal condition.
Since 2019, problems with legs or feet rose by 29% and problems with back or neck rose by 28%.
There were also warning signs for employers that the problem could continue to get worse with those who were still in employment increasingly at risk.
For those individuals suffering with long-term health conditions who were in employment, the sickness absence rate in 2022 was 4.9%, the highest it has been since 2008, the ONS found. This was compared with 1.5% for those in employment without a long-term health condition.
The agency also reported a notable trend in more older people aged between 59 and 77 leaving the workforce than it would have otherwise expected.
“Between 2019 and 2022 it is estimated that around 40,000 extra people would be expected to become inactive because of long-term sickness as a result of the changing age composition of the population, but the actual change over the same time period was much larger at 462,000,” the ONS said.
“It is likely that this changing age composition will continue to apply an upward pressure to inactivity volumes in the next few years.”
Broadstone head of health and protection Brett Hill noted that chronic health conditions were increasingly prevalent throughout the UK as those suffering long-term conditions faced difficulties accessing diagnoses and treatment.
“This deterioration of health is a major headwind for the UK economy as businesses battle a drain on staff and productivity,” he said.
“It means employers are ramping up their investment in healthcare options from private medical insurance to the provision of greater support services like virtual GPs to keep their workforce healthy.
“While the government’s recent focus on ways to improve access to occupational health services is most welcome, private medical insurance seems to be the elephant in the room when discussing ways of addressing sickness absence issues within the workforce.
“The government has rightly identified poor workplace health and long term sickness as significant factors holding back the UK economy, but it needs to be bolder in encouraging employers to invest in the full range of healthcare options to keep their employees healthy and at work as we fight our national health crisis.”
Canada Life Group Insurance head of claims and medical underwriting Ian Ranger agreed it was worrying there were more than 2.5 million absences due to long-term sickness, an increase of over 400,000 since the start of the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic, we’re moving and interacting less, and this, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis, means that maintaining our wellbeing – physical, mental, and financial – is a real challenge,” he said.
“For many employers, remote working means it can be harder to detect signs of illness which leads to a risk of employees being signed off work for longer periods.
“Workplace insurers can play a vital role in helping people back to work, and hopefully in due course, help drive these numbers down. For example, early intervention services can be a great way to assist both employer and employee.
“Ultimately though, it must be a shared responsibility of the employer, insurer and the individual.”