Long Covid not to blame for the ‘great resignation’

Longer NHS waiting lists are fuelling the number of people who are unable to work because of long-term illnesses - Jane Barlow/PA
Longer NHS waiting lists are fuelling the number of people who are unable to work because of long-term illnesses – Jane Barlow/PA

The great resignation is being fuelled by older workers who are too ill to continue working rather than because of Covid, experts have warned, as they said long waits for NHS treatment were adding to the problem.

Record numbers of people have quit their jobs in recent years, with a fifth of workers saying they plan to resign this year, in a phenomenon that has been linked to disillusionment since the pandemic.

The trend has been blamed on the Covid pandemic, but new analysis by the Health Foundation found that in older people it had begun far earlier.

By the second quarter of 2022, 200,000 older workers aged 50-69 had left employment due to ill-health since the start of the pandemic.

But analysts found that by the start of 2020, some 110,000 older workers had already left the workforce because of health reasons compared to 2014.

They discovered that this downturn was masked by a general uptick in employment driven by younger groups.

Uptick in ill-health before pandemic

Before the pandemic, the proportion of people who were not working due to long-term health conditions was around 63 per cent, and has only risen to 64 per cent this year, suggesting Covid is not to blame for current levels of non-working.

Alice Major, analyst at the Health Foundation, who led the research, said: “Increasing numbers of older workers are being forced out of work due to ill-health.

Covid has played a factor, through long Covid and the health care backlogs, but our analysis shows the problem goes back to before the pandemic. There is a longer-term issue with rising levels of ill-health which can’t all be placed on Covid.

“If the Government’s growth plan is to achieve its overall aims, it must treat health and wealth as inseparable. Focusing on supporting people with ill-health back into employment can boost labour supply and make a substantive contribution to growth,” Ms Major added.

Around 700,000 people have left the British workforce since the pandemic, but experts are more concerned about the 300,000 people aged 50 to 69 because they are at greater risk of not returning to work.

Cardiovascular problems and depression

Of the 3.5 million 50–69 year olds who were not working by the end of summer this year, 1.6 million reported ill health as their main reason for inactivity.

The team found that there had been a big increase in cardiovascular problems and depression being given as the reason for not working.

And they discovered that growing NHS waiting lists is also likely to be playing a role, with one in 50 of those under 70 saying that they were not looking for work while they awaited treatment.

Recent ONS research found that one fifth (18 per cent) of 50–65-year-old people who stopped working during the pandemic – and have not returned since – are on a NHS waiting list.

Nearly 1 in 4 people inactive because of ill health want to work or are seeking work, but are unavailable to start because of their health, the report authors found.

Although many people have blamed long Covid for the fall in the workforce, the majority are on sickness leave and are still employed, the analysis suggests.

The Health Foundation said that the long Covid, the cost of living crisis and waiting lists were simply exacerbating a pre-pandemic trend of the increasing prevalence of poor health, and of poor health as a reason for inactivity.

They have called for urgent action to re-engage those who are long-term sick and who want to return to work, and for business and government to do more to help keep people in work in the first place and maintain people’s health.

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