‘Too Ill to Work’: A deeper look at what the figures show

A medical professional prepares an injection

The number of people who give long-term sickness as their main reason for not being able to work has been on the rise. Here Darren Morgan looks in a little more detail at this phenomenon.  

There are now over 2.5 million of these people, over 400,000 more than before COVID-19 struck. This rise has continued even though the overall number of those neither working nor looking for work has been falling for some months now. We at the Office for National Statistics have been looking in a little more detail at this phenomenon, and some striking points have emerged.

The big picture

Firstly, more people overall are reporting long-term health conditions. Our Labour Force Survey shows 36% of all working-age people reporting at least one long-term health condition this January to March. This is up from 31% in the same period in 2019 and represents a drop of 2 million people reporting themselves fully fit in just four years.

For those whose long-term sickness has led them to stop working or looking for work, our new analysis shows that 38% reported having five or more health conditions in Q1 2023. This proportion is up from 34% in 2019 and the total now stands at 937,000 people. All this suggests that many people have interlinked and complex health issues, which might mean that they have more than one health barrier to hinder their return to the world of work.

Looking a bit deeper

If you consider secondary as well as main health conditions, it becomes clear that the most common overall is ‘depression, bad nerves or anxiety.’ In the working-age population as a whole over 5 million people, or 12% of the total, reported suffering from this. More than half of those economically inactive because of long-term sickness, or over 1.3 million people, reported this condition. This is up from under a million in early 2019. However, our new analysis shows the majority of those with depression, bad nerves or anxiety reported it as a secondary health condition rather than their main one.

Since the majority of those who are not working or looking for work because of long-term sickness have multiple health conditions, we also looked at the combinations of health conditions, and some clear patterns emerge. More than two thirds (70%) of those with a main health condition that was musculoskeletal in nature – problems with back or neck, for example – reported that they had more than one type of these conditions. For example, 58% of those with back or neck problems as their main health condition also reported having issues with their legs or feet. Not surprisingly, 56% of people who cited mental illness as their main health condition also said they suffered from depression, bad nerves or anxiety.

It is for others to decide what the policy response should be, but our new figures shine a light on an important issue holding people back from returning to work.

Darren Morgan

Darren Morgan is Director of Economic Statistics Production and Analysis