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Employment and training

‘Too ill to work’? Why better public services are needed to support people into the workplace

Close-up of an older woman sitting in the park. She looks thoughtfully off camera.

There are a multitude of factors that can impact unemployment levels. In a new blog, Catch22 Head of Policy and Campaigns, Stella Tsantekidou, considers the role that health and wellbeing has to play, and what is needed to create more human, effective services that support those who are out of work – for health reasons or otherwise.

One would think that record levels of low unemployment would be good news… but as we’ve pointed out before at Catch22, if you scratch beneath the surface, you find some tough policy conundrums.

We have previously covered the rise of underemployment among young people, which shows that, while a lot of people may on paper seem to be employed, in reality, they don’t have a sustainable career and are at risk of becoming unemployed again because their job is either part-time, short-term, or too difficult and unappealing for others reasons, e.g. too long commute, not aligned with values and interests of the applicant, lack of carer-friendly work policies etc.

The other side of the coin is that industries are struggling to fill their vacancies. Up and down the country, there are complaints from employers that they are understaffed and overworked with no sign of improvement. Despite how politically difficult politicians feel it is to liberalise immigration policy, the Government has found itself doing exactly that to plug big gaps in essential industries such as construction, agriculture, health and social care, hospitality, and education (That sounds like the majority of our economy, doesn’t it?).

Policy analysts point to the culprit being economically-inactive adults, meaning people who are of working age but who don’t work or even look for work. Re-engaging these people back into the job market is the million-dollar question for employment service providers, politicians, and civil servants who have been scratching their heads at British low productivity rates for the last decade.

The Office for National Statistics released some illuminating statistics last year, looking at why people can’t or won’t work. In early 2023, a rising number of working-age adults reported having health issues that last a long time. Now, 36% say they have at least one such condition, up from 31% in 2019 and 29% in 2016. The count of people not working due to long-term illness has jumped to over 2.5 million, which is 400,000 more since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Nearly two out of five of these people have five or more health problems, showing that their health situations are complicated. More than half of them (about 1.35 million people), struggle with mental health problems like depression or anxiety. And, for those with muscle and bone conditions, over 70% have more than one type of these issues.

At face value, it sounds like people are “too ill to work”. It may also be that they have lost hope that they will be able to do work that will be compatible with their health conditions. For example, it is understandable why older people would leave sectors such as the hospitality industry or the healthcare sector during the pandemic and immediately after: both the danger of contamination, and the worsening working conditions, could push someone whose health conditions render them vulnerable off the job market.

In January this year, IPPR published a paper looking at exactly this phenomenon called ‘Healthy Places, Prosperous Lives’. They conducted several multi-day workshops around the country to understand people’s views on health, its link to well-being, and what changes they would like to see. People agreed that health should be a top priority, and recognised that their surroundings and community play a big role in their health. However, they felt they couldn’t really influence their own health outcomes. The main points from these discussions were:

  1. A healthy life is built on feeling safe and secure, having good job prospects, being protected from crime, and opportunities for education and personal growth.
  2. The quality of public spaces and social connections is crucial. These factors strongly influence mental health, happiness, and community enjoyment.
  3. People want to have a say in health matters, but feel they lack the power to do so – both as individuals and as a community.
  4. Good health is not just an individual concern: it’s a collective one. Businesses, governments at all levels, the NHS, and entire communities all have roles to play in promoting better health.

The report goes on to propose a foundation of seven pillars for a healthier, more prosperous and fairer country. They report that this would need to include:

  • a safe home,
  • healthy bodies,
  • clean air to breathe,
  • a good job,
  • strong relationships and community,
  • freedom from addiction, and
  • a great start to life.

This framework is by no means a quick fix to the country’s productivity problem, nor to the expanding staffing gaps across the industries, but it does highlight what we have long advocated for at Catch22. Work is about a lot more than just clocking in and out of an office, twice a day. I can’t resist the marketing plug here and mention our 3Ps: people, place and purpose. The report seems to validate our desire to instil these values into all of our services.

Some of the pillars may seem like common sense for a thriving labour force, but unless we cannot just stop at repeating an argument for a debate we think we have won. We need to find ways to tie these findings into more humane and effective services.

– Stella Tsantekidou, Catch22 Head of Policy and Campaigns