Newly released data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has unveiled a startling statistic: two-thirds of individuals granted sickness benefits in the wake of the lockdowns have been excused from seeking employment.

Over the period from April 2019 to November 2023, approximately 1.5 million people applying for sickness benefits tied to Universal Credit were awarded the most generous tier of welfare payments, the data reveals.

The primary catalyst behind long-term sickness claims was identified as mental health issues, accounting for 69 percent of cases examined.

Out of the 2.4 million health-related claims processed during this four-year span, 16 percent were rejected outright. Meanwhile, 19 percent of applicants were categorised as having “limited capability for work,” while a staggering 65 percent fell under the classification of “limited capability for work and work-related activity” (LCWRA), absolving them from the obligation to seek employment to receive benefits.

Working requirements

Further analysis revealed that more than half of individuals assessed across all council areas during this period were relieved of any work requirements. Notably, areas such as Ceredigion in Wales and Chorley in Lancashire boasted the highest proportions of claimants with no work obligations, standing at 74 percent and 73 percent, respectively. Conversely, Slough registered the lowest proportion at 55 percent.

In England, the North West exhibited the highest ratio of decisions wherein claimants were exempted from job searches, while the North East reported the lowest.

Presently, a staggering 3.9 million individuals are receiving out-of-work benefits without the expectation of seeking employment.

Recent data underscores mental and behavioural disorders as the most frequently reported medical conditions among claimants, cited by 69 percent of individuals, followed by musculoskeletal issues affecting 48 percent of claimants.

Christopher Rocks, lead economist for the Health Foundation’s commission for healthier working lives, emphasised the complexity of health needs within this demographic, noting an average of 2.7 medical conditions recorded per Universal Credit health claimant.

Incapacity claims

Concerns have been raised regarding the surge in approved incapacity claims, particularly during the lockdowns when face-to-face assessments were suspended. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) highlighted a near 100 percent approval rate during this period, noting a substantial increase compared to previous years.

Commenting on the findings, Nikita Malik, head of work and opportunity at the Centre for Social Justice, expressed apprehension over the detrimental economic and societal ramifications, urging a comprehensive reassessment of the government’s approach to work and health.

In response, a DWP spokesman emphasised the government’s commitment to facilitating employment opportunities for all capable individuals, citing ongoing welfare reforms aimed at providing personalised support and breaking down barriers to work.

The spokesman highlighted initiatives such as the £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan, designed to assist over a million individuals, including those with disabilities and long-term health conditions, in securing employment opportunities.

As the debate intensifies over the intersection of health, welfare, and employment policies, the imperative for a holistic strategy to address the evolving landscape of workforce participation becomes increasingly apparent.





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 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.