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GPs, employers and staff often fail to have an early dialogue about job retention or return to work

The labour market in the UK is going through one of its periodic convulsions. Just when we had hoped that perhaps unemployment would hold at around 2.6 million, forecasters are expecting it to hit three million before things get better.

Youth unemployment is now exceptionally high and opportunities for new graduates are poor. Worse still are prospects for people with disabilities or long-term health conditions - whose employment rates even in boom times are unacceptably low.

In March 2010, Dame Carol Black and former head of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost, were asked by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to conduct an independent review of sickness absence, with the aim of suggesting changes to the way people with long-term sickness are supported through the maze of primary care, welfare and employer-based interventions. I was an advisor to the review and its report has highlighted important challenges and raises some difficult questions for us all.

A welcome proposal of the report is that interventions to help keep people in work should happen earlier. Once people have been away from work for more than four weeks, their chances of returning start to fall away rapidly. One common problem here is that GPs, employers and staff often fail to have an early dialogue around job retention or return to work. This may be because the employee is reluctant to disclose their condition or because their relationship with their employer is breaking down.

The review recommends setting up an independent assessment service to support early interventions after four weeks. This is a welcome move, because too many individual workers are migrating onto long-term sickness absence or out-of-work benefits without any supportive medical or vocational interventions.

Despite this, the fear is that people of working age with a long-term health condition will lose out in the labour market. But, by 2030, people with long-term conditions will not be a minority. As the workforce ages and we work longer, more than 21 million UK workers - two-thirds of the workforce - will have a long-term health condition affecting ability to work. About seven million will have a mental health problem, seven million more a musculoskeletal disorder, almost one million will have cancer and the number of diabetics will increase by 190%.

For most employers, this will mean a total re-think. No longer will it be exceptional to arrange cover for a staff member having a hip replacement, chemotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, or make adjustments for those returning to work. We will need to come to terms with the fact that health-related work limitations will be the norm.

A proportion of this poorer health will continue to be caused or exacerbated by work itself and, although we know that good work is good for people's health, there is still much that employers can do to promote psychologically healthy workplaces. Indeed, the benefits of greater workforce 'resilience' will be the subject of new research by The Work Foundation and business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper.

Unless employers, GPs and agencies providing vocational support embrace the principles of early, targeted and supportive interventions for workers with long-term conditions, the human cost - and the loss of productive capacity to UK plc - will be startlingly high.