The Commission for Healthier Working Lives: building a consensus on how to address the decline in working-age health

Blog posts

7 Dec 2023

Tony Wilson, Director, IES
Naomi Phillips, Deputy Chief Executive, L&W
Joe Levenson, Interim Director of Policy and Communications, RSPH

Learning and Work Institute (L&W), Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) have formed a new collaboration to be the research partners for the Commission for Healthier Working Lives, supported by the Health Foundation.

The Commission for Healthier Working Lives aims to build a consensus on the action needed to address the decline in working-age health. It will create a better understanding of health trends and inequalities – and their impact on individuals, employers and the economy. The Commission will make recommendations for action to improve working-age health, and to help more people with health conditions get the support they need to access, remain or thrive in the workforce.

The growing prevalence of poor physical and mental health in the UK is already having negative consequences, not only limiting the lives of people and communities but also on the economy. The UK is the only G7 country to have lower employment than pre-pandemic; and the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness is at record highs. Economic inactivity has risen by around 400,000 over the past couple of years. This was driven by a large rise in people becoming economically inactive during 2020, particularly a rise in early retirement for older people. However, the most common reason now for staying out of the labour market is long-term sickness. This is linked to rising ill health as the population ages, the impact of the pandemic, and NHS waiting lists.

The challenges also vary across the country: the proportion of people aged 16+ and economically inactive due to long-term sickness varies from 1 in 100 in parts of Surrey to 1 in 7 in parts of Merseyside. Responses need to reflect local need and economies. The data also show a gender and class divide. Better-paid and male-dominated roles account for around one in three people who took early retirement. By contrast, people from lower-paid, often female-dominated roles were more likely to give up work for health reasons.

Conversely, it is increasingly recognised that work, or lack of it, types of job, quality of work, opportunities for progression, and pay and reward impact on working age health – both physical and mental.

At a time when having a healthy working age population is critical to increasing participation in the labour market, productivity, and economic growth, the overall picture looks to be stalling or going in the wrong direction. It’s important to understand why. And, while there is much existing research and evidence on the interplay between work and health, large gaps in knowledge exist.

Drawing on the existing evidence and through tailored individual projects across six themes, our partnership across IES, L&W and RSPH will identify key gaps and undertake research to explore in more depth:

  • the extent and drivers of poor working age population health
  • implications of health trends for labour supply and the wider economy
  • how changes to the type of work people do interacts with health.

The outputs will draw out clear findings and should mean that the Commission is powered by the best available evidence to understand the complex relationships between work and health, as well as existing market and policy failures, and to identify fresh approaches and the interventions required to address them.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.