The facts speak for themselves on the link between health and wealth, and the root causes for vulnerable populations being unemployed.
An IPPR study reveals that 25% of economically inactive individuals reside in the 50 areas in England with high poor health, indicating a “double injustice” with lower household income and higher poverty. ONS statistics show those in deprived areas are 1.5 times more likely to be economically inactive and twice as likely to be in poor health. Identified as “bad health black spots,” cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Nottingham have high rates of poor health and economic inactivity.
The latest report by the Resolution Foundation exposes a widening gap between wealthier parts of the South and regions with higher deprivation. The report states that 5.8% of the working-age population is currently off work due to ill health, up from 5.1% pre-pandemic. Significantly higher rates of long-term sickness are observed in poorer regions, with up to 9.1% in West Wales. Geographical disparities underscore the need for targeted interventions to address health inequalities.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has warned that thousands of British people in receipt of regular benefits payments from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) face seeing their entitlement cut from April 2024 unless they actively seek employment. This policy, while ostensibly aimed at boosting workforce participation, raises serious concerns about the potential negative impact on vulnerable members of society.
In light of the current challenges posed by the post-pandemic era and the escalating cost-of-living crisis, it’s imperative to explore alternative, long-term solutions that address the root cause of unemployment.
These solutions will not be short-term fixes but rather need to address the wider environmental and social factors to ensure the wellbeing of vulnerable people. Alongside this, these solutions must promote a more active, healthier, and more productive workforce to stimulate sustainable economic recovery and growth.
Gaps in a Retrospective Policy Approach
Forcing individuals with physical or mental health issues to choose between their livelihoods and benefits could exacerbate existing social inequalities and jeopardize the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable members of society. These existing inequalities are highlighted in a report by South Yorkshire’s NHS Integrated Care Board which shows that “people living in our most deprived areas have both shorter lives and are living those years in poorer health”.
Retrospective measures such as benefit cuts may indeed spur a short-term increase in employment, but they fail to address underlying issues which hinder individuals from productively joining and rejoining the workforce.
This approach may also prove counterproductive in the long-term, due to the increased strain on social and healthcare services as individuals struggle with the consequences of diminished mental and physical wellbeing.
To create a sustainable and inclusive workforce, the government must recognise the pivotal economic impact that physical and mental health have and invest in long-term preventative health measures.
Driving Economic Benefits
Research has shown that higher levels of stress can lead to burnout, while a happier, healthier workforce is more productive. Businesses which prioritise wellbeing report employees taking fewer sick days, delivering higher performance, and having lower rates of burnout and turnover. This shows how the state of workforces is a joint business, health and economic concern.
The economic benefits of a healthier and more engaged workforce cannot be understated. Improved worker wellbeing and mental health translates directly into increased productivity. With the latest ONS figures showing that the UK economy is still not growing enough to quell fears of recession, focusing on the health and wellbeing of the workforce becomes a strategic imperative to drive economic recovery.
Learning from Abroad
Japan’s success story in healthcare can be used as a compelling model for the UK to learn from. In Japan, the emphasis on prevention and such initiatives as the Health and Productivity Management Strategy have yielded impressive evidence to show how employers can support the health and wellbeing of their workforces; together with individualised care and lifestyle behaviour modification this has resulted in reduced healthcare utilisation and expenditure trends over time. By focusing on achieving a more equitable and sustainable health system, this approach has not only improved health outcomes but also contributed to economic resilience.
We need to identify and address health issues before they become barriers to employment, rather than take a ‘stick over carrot’ approach towards the more vulnerable members of society.
This requires the government to avoid a one-size-fits all approach, and instead understand that every individual has different support requirements based on their personal circumstances. Shortchanging benefits recipients or creating punitive health policy is not the answer; rather, individuals need access to more effective support, that takes their specific needs and situation into account, to allow them to enter or re-enter the economy quickly.
The interplay between individual circumstances, health, and employment is intricate. Addressing these complexities and deep-rooted systemic contributing factors is pivotal to preventing health-related barriers to employment, but it also presents our greatest collective challenge.
In many cases, individuals facing socio-economic barriers, discrimination, or lack of educational opportunities may find themselves in vulnerable positions, compounding health disparities and inequitable access to steady income streams.
For instance, lower access to healthcare resources and services can contribute to the development of chronic health conditions, making it difficult for individuals to maintain employment.
Investing in people
To address these issues effectively, a comprehensive approach is needed. Providing equal opportunities for education and skills development, irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds, can empower individuals to break free from the cycle of poverty and unemployment. Additionally, policies that address systemic discrimination and promote inclusivity in workplaces can facilitate a more level playing field.
Therefore, the UK should invest in more proactive mental health support and incentives for vocational rehabilitation, for example, to create an environment where vulnerable individuals feel supported in their pursuit of employment. This not only addresses immediate challenges but also contributes to breaking the cycle of poverty and unemployment that often plagues vulnerable communities.
By offering accessible mental health resources, the government and UK businesses can take a more active, impactful role in breaking down employment barriers and promoting overall wellbeing.
Learning from successful care models like Japan as well as recognising and addressing root causes, the UK government can invest in a proactive healthcare approach that not only improves health outcomes but also addresses the systemic barriers preventing vulnerable populations from participating fully in the workforce.
Incentivising businesses and employers as anchor institutions working with evolving integrated care systems in community health will help. The vital role of business in preventative health through meaningful collaboration with the NHS and care system and a cross-departmental government approach to policy-making needs to be embraced and supported. Longer-term preventative health measures need to form part of an integrated system change approach.
By taking a more preventative approach, individuals can maintain positive wellbeing, actively participate in the workforce, and in turn offer tangible contributions to their communities and the economy. Only with thriving employees and communities will we build a resilient economy.
By Tina Woods, CEO and Founder, Business for Health
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