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A new report suggests that the number of older workers who drop out of the workforce due to ill health has been an issue since before Covid.
The nation’s underlying ill-health – rather than long Covid or extended waiting lists – is the primary reason for the rise in the number of older workers leaving employment for health reasons, according to a new study.
The Health Foundation says the government’s Growth Plan must ensure older workers with poor health who have involuntarily left the labour market altogether are supported to move back into work. This means tailored support to address health and skills barriers to working.
The Health Foundation’s report finds that by the second quarter of 2022, 200,000 older workers (age 50–69) had left employment due to ill-health since the start of the pandemic and constituted the biggest contributor to the recent rise in economic inactivity for that group.
However, it says that while before the pandemic people were retiring later and inactivity was falling overall, this masked the growing number of 50-64 year olds who were inactive due to ill-health. By the start of 2020, there were an additional 110,000 older workers who were no longer working on health grounds compared to 2014.
Pre-pandemic, the proportion of those who are inactive with a long-term health condition was around 63%, but this has increased only slightly to 64% post-pandemic, the study finds.
The analysis also finds that growing waiting lists for treatment are likely to be playing only a minor role in the increased inactivity. Under 70-year-olds reporting cancelled or postponed treatment accounted for only 2% of the group not looking for paid work and the majority were not in work before the pandemic.
Recent estimates suggest that although 80,000-110,000 people are not working because of long Covid, the majority with the condition are on sickness leave and still employed.
The Health Foundation is calling on the government to focus employment support programmes on the economically inactive with tailored support to address health and skills barriers to working and to include a strategy to retain older workers, maintaining good health, as part of its Growth Plan. It would also like to see benefits rising in line with inflation so people have a safety net until they can find work and it is calling for a commitment to publishing the Health Disparities White Paper to address the inequalities in older people working – and keeping people healthy in the first place.
Alice Major, analyst at the Health Foundation, who led the research, said: “Increasing numbers of older workers are being forced out of work due to ill-health. Covid-19 has played a factor, through long Covid and the healthcare backlogs, but our analysis shows the problem goes back to before the pandemic. There is a longer-term issue with rising levels of ill-health which can’t all be placed on Covid-19.
“If the government’s Growth Plan is to achieve its overall aims, it must treat health and wealth as inseparable. Focusing on supporting people with ill-health back into employment can boost labour supply and make a substantive contribution to growth.”