· Insights

Health and wellbeing: why prevention is the best strategy for success


Poor health can have an impact on a range of issues faced by employees. But there are steps you can take to make things better.

“Protecting the health of your people has never been more important,” advises Tom Hoosen-Webber, Bupa UK’s chief people and procurement officer.  

“Record numbers of Britons are dropping out of the workforce because of poor health, more employees are living with chronic illness and wait times for healthcare are getting longer.”

And these challenges will persist. Earlier this year, the Resolution Foundation warned: “The UK is facing a longer-term, and more widespread, rise in economic inactivity due to long-term sickness.”


Economic impact

The implications are alarming. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research warns that good health is “a crucial determinant of our economic prospects, both at an individual and a national level”. 

It calculates that lost earnings due to long-term sickness costs the UK economy £43 billion in 2021, equivalent to around 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). That lost production took another £7 billion out of the economy.

Tom also says: “As more people drop out of the labour market, or reduce their hours, this will also add to the pressure on businesses seeking to recruit and retain talent.”


Understanding the issues

“Meeting this challenge will require a deeper understanding of the issues driving poor health, workplace interventions to support employee wellbeing, and putting strategies in place to help people with long-term illness stay in work.”

The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data shows there are now 2.5 million people not in work due to long-term health problems — a 25% jump since the beginning of the pandemic. 

But the data also shows where support can be targeted most effectively. The biggest rise – 41% – was seen in ‘other conditions’. Some of this is likely to be Long Covid, as this was not captured separately. 

However, this is likely to rise, as these figures reflect what was happening early in the pandemic. It is estimated that 1.3 million people in the UK have Covid-related health issues which have persisted for at least a year. 

The most commonly reported challenges are fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle pain and breathlessness – which all undermine the ability to work and perform well. 

This was followed by musculoskeletal issues affecting the back or neck which rose by 31%.

Tom adds: “It’s likely that working from home has contributed to this, as many employees do not have a dedicated work space and ergonomically sound set-up.”


Mental health challenges

There has also been a 22% rise in the number of people not working due to long-term mental illness. 

The ONS data shows that the younger population has been disproportionately impacted with a 24% increase in mental illness, phobias and nervous disorders in 16 to 34 year olds, and these levels of distress are likely to continue.

Research for the Children’s Society suggests one in six school children has a mental health problem, and NHS Digital data shows that almost a quarter (22%) of young adults aged 17 to 24 now has a probable mental health condition.

Tom says: “Our ageing population is another ongoing challenge. Illness is an inevitable part of ageing and a significant proportion of the labour market now has at least one chronic health condition.”

And recent research from University College London found that a third of adults (34%) aged 46 to 48 have multiple chronic health problems.


Illness and ageing

But while illness is an inevitable part of ageing, lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of activity and obesity all hasten this process – and with it the risk of people dropping out of the labour market.

Tom says: “The relentless rise in rates of obesity is clearly a factor driving the increase in long-term illness. Two-thirds of adults in the UK are now overweight or obese, and a recent study published in The Lancet study linked obesity with an increased risk of 21 major diseases.

“These health problems are often interconnected, and obese individuals tend to develop a cluster of two or more different conditions. This is bound to increase the likelihood of early retirement due to poor health.”

There is also a clear link between obesity and depression, with low mood associated with a 58% increased risk of weight problems, and people with obesity having a 55% increased risk of depression.

“On the plus side, even modest weight loss can yield meaningful benefits, so there is a clear incentive for employers to promote and support healthier lifestyles. Screening and regular checks also ensures the early diagnosis and treatment of any potential issues.”


Support reduces risk

Tom says: “We know that providing the right employee support reduces the impact of mental ill-health, musculoskeletal problems, obesity and many of the health issues driving the rise in long-term illness.”

And the ONS data should be a wake-up call as the largest relative rise in long-term illness (42%) was seen in those aged 25 to 34 – an important age when many are more seriously planning, starting and establishing their careers. 

“The dividends in terms of talent retention, better engagement and increased productivity underline the strong business case for taking a proactive and preventative approach.”



The Bupa Health Horizons series brings you the latest healthcare trends, interviews with medical experts and specialist insight from Bupa: all designed to keep you and your organisation one step ahead.

For the latest trends on supporting health and wellbeing in the workplace, take a look here.