Britain’s economy is under the weather and if left unchecked, we risk becoming tarred as the sick man of Europe once again. Even under the now-failed Truss administration, which went for growth at all costs, there was a gaping hole in our fiscal policies: addressing the health and productivity of the UK workforce.
Earlier this month, the Office for National Statistics released numbers reflecting the intimidating scale of the problem. While unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 1974 at 3.5 per cent, more people continued to leave the labour force over the summer, which has exacerbated personnel shortages across the UK. Our shrinking workforce is largely due to rising levels of long-term illness exacerbated by lengthy NHS backlogs and the aftershocks of Covid.
Investing in, or indeed unlocking investment into, workforce health is an economic lever that must be pulled to boost lagging productivity levels whilst decreasing health disparities within the labour force. Reversing the nation’s post-pandemic worker crisis will boost a struggling economy by £23bn and free up £8bn in tax, according to the Learning & Work Institute. These numbers cannot be ignored by the Chancellor and his Treasury.
The links between health and productivity are well-documented: from the cost of obesity to the economy (3 per cent of UK GDP or £73bn a year), to the staggering 131 million working days lost every year due to ill health. It should not be a shock to policy makers that the UK now has the sickest workforce in the developed world.
It is a particularly crippling issue in the North, where workers are more likely to lose their jobs when sick than other parts of the UK and overall health inequalities are far greater. Take our patch up in Cumbria for example, where life expectancy rates are more than three years lower than the England average for both men and women. The inter-regional disparities paint an equally bleak picture where the difference in life expectancy for the most deprived areas versus the least deprived areas can be up to ten years. Closing the regional productivity gap could add around £71.6bn to the UK total GDP in 2023 alone.
There are, however, solutions. The port town of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria has provided a model for inspiration for fresh ideas. One of the local employers, BAE Systems, is piloting proactive health screenings for workers to try and identify health issues early, preventing more serious illnesses which will impact both the employee, as an individual, and place further strain on the NHS.
When we talk about healthcare, we often think about how we reform the health service, how we make it more proactive and geared towards prevention. But we also need to look at the systems in place around an individual. It is in the interests of employers and employees to be in good health and they interact almost daily.
There is often a communication shortcoming here. A third of employees with a long-term health condition in the UK have never discussed it with their employers.
In terms of government movements, there should be a scheme subsidising – or, while cash is short, at the very least encouraging – screening or early intervention programmes in the workplace. A true improvement in care and community health can only happen when the public and private sectors realise their respective strengths and work together to increase the capacity of our healthcare system.
Partnerships like these can begin to reverse the impact of long-term sickness on the economy, which now affects 378,000 more people than at the start of the pandemic – the equivalent of losing a city the size of Newcastle from the UK economy.
We are living through a period of economic flux and will be for some time. The onus will increasingly fall on businesses to adapt and find novel ways of supporting employees without fuelling inflation, as government officials queue up to warn of the risk of steep pay rises. For the good of our economy and health service, ramping up investment in workforce health is a crucial next step – forming a pillar of a happier, healthier and more prosperous Britain.