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Long-term conditions don't have to mean worklessness

The UK's ageing workforce means a surge in employees with a long-term illness, but there are things employers can do to help

The UK’s workforce is ageing. There are almost twice as many people aged between 50 and 69 years or more than there are aged 15 to 24 years, leading some to describe the situation as a demographic time-bomb. One major implication of an ageing workforce is that the number of people experiencing at least one long-term condition is expected to rise above 17 million in the coming decades, affecting people’s job situation and, more broadly, productivity and the national economy.

Worklessness and sickness absence related to ill-health already costs the UK more than £100 billion each year – this is not sustainable. The impact of long-term conditions on employment and the wider UK economy, a new report from Lancaster University’s Work Foundation, highlights how a number of long-term conditions can have a serious impact on the lives of working age people, and the wider economy, and how employers can improve support services for employees with long-term conditions so that they are able to remain in work.

There are substantial barriers to employment for people with long-term conditions. These can impact on individuals through lost earnings, impaired career prospects and early exit or prolonged absence from the workforce. There is also a wealth of evidence that indicates that ‘good’ employment is important for individuals’ quality of life. Work provides financial autonomy, an increased sense of self-worth, and fulfils a psychosocial need in society where work is the norm.

Employment rates for people with long-term conditions are persistently low, even though individuals would like to work and in most instances work will be both possible and beneficial. Having a long-term condition can result in increased sickness absence, presenteeism, early retirement, and unpaid care and employment. Long-term conditions can be fluctuating in nature, meaning that symptoms can be difficult to predict and manage, particularly at work, and stigma often associated with long-term conditions can also prevent people considering work as an option, or asking for the vital help that could aid retention.

The key statistics highlighting how some long term conditions impact on an individuals’ ability to work speak for themselves:

  • The average age of retirement for someone with multiple sclerosis is 42
  • People with heart failure lose an average of 17.2 days of work a year
  • Over 45% of people with asthma report going to work when ill, increasing the risk of prolonged sickness
  • Just 8% of people with schizophrenia are in employment, despite evidence that up to 70% of people with severe mental illness would like to work

Employers must acknowledge the significant challenge that the UK labour market faces as the workforce ages and develops more chronic illness. They must provide leadership in partnership with the government, the NHS and employees to implement relevant workplace solutions. Simple reasonable adjustments to the workplace – such as the provision of a parking space, better access to a disabled toilet, or improvements in technology, can support the varying needs of employees with long-term fluctuating conditions.

For an employee to feel safe or confident enough to disclose their condition, and to discuss what adjustments would be most beneficial, employers (especially line managers) should create an open and supportive environment where individuals feel safe and comfortable to seek support. Finally, employers should also become more aware of the specialist support that is available; for example: occupational health, occupational therapists, EAPs, the Fit For Work Service and Access to Work. All could be used to achieve the best work outcomes for their organisation and the employee.

The diagnosis of a long-term condition does not have to result in worklessness, especially if early targeted measures can be implemented to empower individuals and employers to manage such conditions in the current and future workplace.

Zofia Bajorek is a researcher at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation and author of the The impact of long term conditions on employment and the wider UK economy report