How has Covid affected workers with long-term health conditions?

A new report highlights the issues faced by the growing number of older workers with long-term health conditions and how Covid has exacerbated these.

Alarm clock on top of blocks saying full time and part time


Sarah Peterson left her last ‘proper’ job in 2018. Sarah, a bookkeeper, was initially hired on a temporary maternity cover contract and then offered a permanent finance position.

Sarah, who suffers from autoimmune diseases, said she wanted to work part time since she gets absolutely wiped out due to her health issues. She was asked if she could work overtime on shows. This involved long hours – working from 7am to 6pm then entertaining clients until after midnight. She said she couldn’t manage this and had this written into her contract. However, when the person she was covering for returned from maternity leave and complained that this wasn’t fair, the company tried to force her to do the overtime, citing a clause in her contract.

Sarah, who is in her 50s and lives in Wiltshire, found the whole experience extremely frustrating and disappointing. “I had been upfront with them about my limitations. They said they understood, but they weren’t really listening. They just thought I got a bit tired and they made me feel that if I wasn’t full time I wasn’t committed,” she said. “It made me feel worthless.”

She adds that she sometimes has periods when she gets unwell due to her condition, for instance, she gets kidney pain. “I cannot judge when this will happen, but I know that if I limit my hours I can work without getting unwell. I know how my body works,” said Sarah.

She would like to see employers being more understanding of health conditions and of the value of part-time workers. She says: “It would be good if employers would realise they need to give people a chance to work in ways that work for them. In return they will get better people working for them who are more committed and less stressed about other commitments or health conditions.”

Sarah, who currently works from home for herself and does some zero hours work as and when she is needed, says the whole experience has put her off being an employee, but she wishes things were different. She says: “In addition to income, having a job gives me a real sense of purpose, gets me out and energises me. Not working is soul destroying.”

Sarah is just one of many older workers with long-term health conditions who have faced difficulties at work due to a lack of empathy from employers.

More support for workers with health conditions

According to the Centre for Ageing Better [CfAB], with one in three workers now over the age of 50 and one in five men and women aged 50-54 managing at least one long-term condition, poor health is by far the most common reason for people aged 50-64 to leave work prematurely. It wants to see more action to prevent people falling out of the workforce before they reach state pension age due to poor health.

The CfAB and the Institute for Employment Studies have just issued a new report, Working Well? How the pandemic changed work for people with health conditions. It found that the pandemic has widened the gap between good and bad employment, with employees with health conditions struggling with a lack of support and poor line management. It says that, while those who were given the right support to manage health conditions at work remained resilient, those who were not faced additional challenges.

In addition, those out-of-work worried that ageism and ableism would make finding work in a competitive job market even more of a challenge.

For the report, researchers followed the journey of 20 people aged 50 and over with some of the common conditions which cause disability among people in their 50s and 60s. These include musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis, mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Over a quarter of women aged 55-64, and one in five men, have a musculoskeletal condition, while half of over-55s have experienced mental health problems.

The CfAB warns that if the state Pension Age is to rise further according to government plans, it is vital that more is done to support employees to manage health conditions in the workplace.

The report calls for the Government to introduce the promised Employment Bill, which was dropped from the Queen’s Speech. It says the Bill should guarantee the right to request flexible working from day one and introduce a single-enforcement body for employment rights. It also outlines a series of actions for employers, including:

Learn from the natural experiment of mass remote working, by finding out what practices staff put in place to manage the shift and adopt them into permanent policies
Invest in line management training and ensure that line managers are implementing organisational policies
Create a working culture that is explicitly anti-ageist and anti-ableist.

Anna Dixon, Chief Executive, Centre for Ageing Better, said: “People with health conditions need the right support at work if they are to get back to work following the end of furlough or to continue to remain in fulfilling work into later life. For those who don’t feel understood or supported at work, the work environment can be challenging and their welfare suffers as a result.

“We know that long-term conditions are one of the main reasons why people in their 50s and 60s drop out of the labour market early. As the average age of the workforce increases, there is a risk that more and more people will  stop working many years before they are able to claim their state pension – with negative impacts on their finances and the wider economy.

“If the government presses ahead with planned increases to the state pension age, more must be done to support those managing health conditions at work. Government must bring the Employment Bill before parliament without further delay to improve flexibility and strengthen rights at work. Employers must invest in line-management training, and ensure that the workplace culture is inclusive and supportive.”

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