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Poor Workplace Wellbeing Is Driving Over-50s Out Of Employment Market


4 min read

A focus on wellbeing and health rather than economic incentives should be a key priority for ministers working out how to get economically inactive people back to work, according to a policy expert.

The latest employment figures from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 500,000 more people were economically inactive last year than there were before the Covid pandemic. 

Among them, the number of people aged between 50 and 64 out of work stood at 27 per cent last year, a number that had been increasing since 2020, according to government officials. 

Numerous reasons have been cited for people leaving the workforce, with early retirement and long-term sickness among them.

Getting so-called “economically inactive” people back into the workforce has been a focus of government in recent months and was a cornerstone of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's Budget in March. 

Chris Thomas, head of the commission on health and prosperity at the IPPR think tank has told PolticsHome that the government had "rightly identified that people in their 50s and 60s leaving the workforce is a key economic challenge" but are currently not taking the right approach.

"In implementing policies like scrapping the lifetime pension allowance, they risk misdiagnosing the problem.

"Inactivity is being driven by sickness, not tax liability," he said.  

The issue, Thomas believes, "is particularly true in the NHS, where the number of people leaving their role due to sickness has risen by over 43 per cent since the first months of 2020". 

Thousands of staff have left the NHS workforce since the peak of the pandemic three years ago. 

According to figures from NHS digital, more than 53,000 staff left the NHS in the first quarter of 2022/23. More than 6,800 people cited work-life balance as a reason behind their departure, and more than 300 said they were retiring specifically due to ill health. 

Hunt made incentivising a return to work for those who have left the workforce a central pillar of this year’s Budget, with offers of new training specifically for older workers, and the offer of a “new digital midlife MOT” to help older workers understand their employment options. 

He told those who have retired early or not returned after furlough that "Britain needs you. And we will look at the conditions necessary to make work worth your while”.

Long-term illness, however, is the main factor restricting the workforce, Thomas said, 

“That means we're unlikely to solve low economic participation through tax breaks, pension give-aways or financial incentives," he added. 

"If the Chancellor wants us back to work, he must do far more to support the nation's health: including by properly resourcing and staffing an NHS with record waiting lists, as well as by tackling key public health threats like poor housing and obesity."

The most recent NHS staff survey found that almost a third of the workforce think about leaving. According to the data, 32.3 per cent of staff said they “often think about leaving this organisation” while nearly a quarter (23.7 per cent) said they will probably look for a job elsewhere within the next 12 months. 

But in a report last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies speculated that the rise in economic inactivity among people in their 50s and 60s since the pandemic was not primarily as a result of health issues or changes in demand in the labour market. 

“It looks more consistent with a lifestyle choice to retire in light of changed preferences or priorities, possibly in combination with changes in the nature of work post-pandemic (in particular more remote work) which reduce the appeal of staying in employment,” they said. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told PoliticsHome: “We are hugely grateful to NHS staff for their hard work and their health and wellbeing is of paramount importance – for those staff that need it the NHS provides physical and mental health support, including targeted psychological support and treatment.

"There are record numbers of staff working in the NHS with over 53,600 more people compared to a year ago – including over 5,400 more doctors and over 12,900 more nurses – and we will publish a workforce plan shortly to ensure we have the right numbers of staff, with the right skills to continue cutting waiting lists and delivering high quality services.”

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