New statistics reveal a concerning milestone as the number of individuals unable to work in the UK due to long-term sickness reaches an all-time high.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that more than two and a half million people are currently unemployed due to health-related issues.

According to the ONS, there has been a noticeable increase in mental health problems, particularly among the younger population. Additionally, cases of back and neck pain have risen, potentially linked to the prevalence of remote working arrangements.

Out of the current UK workforce of 33 million people, 2.55 million individuals are classified as long-term sick. This suggests that for every 13 individuals currently employed, one person is on long-term sick leave.

The ONS figures also shed light on the persistent wage stagnation, as salary increments fail to keep pace with the surging cost of living. However, the public sector experiences a positive shift with its pay scale, growing at the fastest rate in approximately two decades.

The employment rate saw an upturn in the first quarter of the year, attributed to a rise in part-time and self-employed workers. Nonetheless, job vacancies continue to decline.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Darren Morgan, Director of Economic Statistics at the ONS, explained the implications of the ongoing Covid pandemic, stating that “the number of individuals outside the labour market due to ill health has surged by well over 400,000. Consequently, we have now reached a new record level, comfortably exceeding two and a half million.”

Morgan further highlighted the rise in mental health issues, particularly among the younger demographic. He also noted an increasing number of individuals suffering from musculoskeletal problems, such as back and neck ailments, potentially linked to the rise in remote working.

“We have also witnessed a rise in cases falling under the category of post-viral fatigue, which could be attributed to the impact of long Covid,” added Morgan.

What can HR do to address back and neck pain?

Ewan Carr, legal director at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau, comments:

“The latest ONS figures will be tough reading for UK businesses and it’s unsurprising that issues relating to home working and mental health are having a significant impact on the workforce. With staff and skills shortages high, employers will need to ensure that they are proactive when looking after the health of their workforce.

“An increase in issues related to back and neck pain shows that it is more important than ever for employers to go back to basics and make sure that they are conducting full compliance and safety audits of all home-working equipment, to help their staff to remain healthy in their post.

“With a reported rise in mental health conditions amongst the younger members of the workforce, employers should look at their internal policies and processes to make sure that all staff have access to the right support at the right time. Employers should also seek out the root causes of mental health issues in the workplace and remove these where possible, whilst remaining aware of the stigma that employees may feel when reporting on their mental health. The winners of the battle for talent will almost certainly be those businesses that go the extra mile for their people.”

Improving employee health and wellbeing should be a top priority

Tina Woods, CEO & Co-Founder of Business for Health, explains why:

“Today’s findings from the ONS should come as no surprise to those who have been tracking the UK’s growing health crisis — from an NHS crippled by waiting lists to the steady decline in life satisfaction levels and the rising pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.   The nation’s poor health is creating a drag on the economy now and is compromising economic growth ambitions ahead.

“This should be a watershed moment for business leaders across the country. It is clear that improving employees’ health and wellbeing should be a top investment priority for any business looking to retain existing staff and deliver on long-term growth ambitions. Business leaders and employers can play a key role in promoting prevention, especially in mental health, advocating health equity and tackling health disparities in the workforce.”

“There is a lot that employers can do to create a healthy and supportive workplace environment. For instance, offering greater flexibility around how, where and when people work or creating peer support networks to enable open discussions around health issues can greatly lift the mood of the workforce.”

“It is clear that the health of UK’s workforce is in critical need of resuscitation — it’s not just a moral obligation, but also a business imperative. Without immediate intervention from both industry and government, we risk calling time of death on the UK economy.”

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, says:

“Recent ONS statistics show that the numbers of individuals not working due to ill health have continued to increase and are now at a record high. A trend that was evident even before the pandemic, the most frequently cited reasons are musculoskeletal problems, minor illnesses, respiratory conditions (possibly explained by covid or long-covid symptoms) and mental health issues (especially amongst young people).

“Sickness absence has the potential to be seriously disruptive for businesses. The ONS statistics reveal an estimated 185.6 million working days were lost to sickness or injury in 2022, which means on average workers took 5.7 days off sick.

“Whilst there are larger issues at play that can only be resolved through governmental and public health policy, individual employers are still able to take steps that influence the absence levels in their business. This starts with making basic health and safety checks, including for those who have remained working from home since the pandemic, who may not have an ergonomically safe workstation. It also includes offering support, such as employee assistance programmes and in-house expertise (for example, mental health first aiders) to help employees make healthy choices and seek support for any issues bothering them.

“Finally, there is the matter of those who have been on sick leave long term. Whilst the chances of return diminish the longer an employee is absent, it is not impossible. Working closely with the absent employee and the specialists in charge of their care, plans can be put in place to adapt their work that can allow them to return, such as a phased return or altered duties. In this way, employers can get these individuals back into work and avoid having to go through a potentially expensive recruitment exercise.”





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.