A New Record

A record number of UK residents has dropped out of the workforce for medical reasons. How to get them back.

Mental-health days, bad colds, fog in the head: Many people take a sick day or two when they feel under the weather. But over the past few years, things have changed dramatically.

Sickness has caused a record 2.8 million British people aged 16 to 64 to drop out of the UK workforce, according to recent research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Before 2020, the total had hovered around 2 million, never exceeding 2.4 million, going all the way back to the 1990s. “The increase in economic inactivity has been chipping away at the country,” says Sonamara Jeffreys, Korn Ferry’s president for EMEA. “And it’s been much worse since COVID.”

To explain this development, experts point to an array of causes. ONS cites long COVID as the top medical reason, followed by mental illness and depression/anxiety. Back or neck problems ranked fourth. 

Most of this seems to be related to the COVID pandemic in one way or another. For instance, mandated work from home has caused mental-health issues, anxiety, and depression, as well as posture problems owing to non-ergonomic seating options in people’s kitchens. On top of that, some workers developed long COVID. “It was a near-perfect storm,” says Stuart Richards, Korn Ferry’s sector leader, consumer products, for UK and EMEA.

Other possible contributing factors include massive payouts by the British government to companies and individuals, as well as the so-called forced savings that accrued when lockdowns curtailed consumer spending. According to its own estimates, the UK government spent as much as £410 billion ($512 billion), and the forced savings accounted for £140 billion. “The government threw money at the problem,” Jeffreys says. 

However, that also meant many people could boost their cash reserves, which gave them a higher level of financial freedom and, in some cases, allowed them to drop out of the workforce altogether, Richards says. The flush-wallet phenomenon may also have combined with changed expectations, leading many people to want to work from home. “Current salaries might be worth it to tempt people back to work, or they might not,” he says. 

Richards stresses that companies need to use empathy and compassion to make the workplace attractive to those dealing with long-term illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Firms must communicate this approach clearly to potential hires. “Living by corporate values is now; we need to live and breathe those values,” he says.

Whether people are sick or not, it’s critical to tempt them back to work in a physical location. Working from home full-time won’t be productive for most roles: Building networks with colleagues, Jeffreys says, is “one of the keys to success.” That means being in the office and being seen. An anonymous junior employee can’t be expected to climb the corporate ladder without getting to know colleagues. As a result, most UK companies are now mandating two or three days a week in the office, with some banks demanding five, she says. “Very few companies have zero-office-attendance guidelines.”


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