Long-term sickness pushing more women out of work than ever before, study finds

Research finds number of women not working due to long-term sickness is rising at far higher rate than it is for male workers

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Monday 13 May 2024 00:26 BST
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While the top reason for women not working used to be caring responsibilities, study suggests ill health has taken its place
While the top reason for women not working used to be caring responsibilities, study suggests ill health has taken its place (Getty)

Long-term sickness has become the leading reason for women to leave the labour market, new research has found.

A study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said the top reason for women not working used to be caring responsibilities for children and relatives, but ill health has now overtaken this.

The union attributed the sharp rise in women experiencing long-term sickness to “overstretched” public services, surging NHS waiting lists, and low-paid, precarious work damaging women’s physical and mental health.

The study discovered that the number of women not working due to long-term sickness is rising at a far higher rate than it is for male workers.

Researchers found that the number of women out of work due to long-term sickness has soared by 48 per cent to hit 1.54 million workers over the last five years – surging by more than 500,000 to the highest number since records started.

The study, which examined data between the end of 2018 and the end of 2023, found that the number of men out of work due to long-term sickness had surged by 37 per cent during this period.

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, said: “We need a proper plan for dealing with the sharp rise in long-term sickness – not cynical gimmicks.

“Instead of stigmatising people who are too ill to work, the government should be laser-focused on improving access to treatment and preventing people from becoming too sick to work in the first place.

“That means investing in local preventative services and bringing down our sky-high waiting lists.”

He also said it requires the government to get a grip on the “chronic staffing shortages” crippling the NHS and social care, which mean that patients face delays for appointments and treatment.

“And it means improving the quality of work in this country – so that women are not disproportionately trapped in low-paid, insecure jobs,” he added. “But instead the government is failing growing numbers of women who are unable to work because they can’t access the right treatment or support.”

It comes after Rishi Sunak recently pledged to eradicate what he branded a “sicknote culture” with a new “moral mission” to overhaul the welfare system.

Instead of stigmatising people who are too ill to work, the government should be laser-focused on improving access to treatment and preventing people from becoming too sick to work in the first place

Paul Nowak

His proposals, which have been fiercely criticised by mental health experts and others, could strip GPs of the right to write fit notes, making them the responsibility of other specialist work and health professionals.

The latest research found that the number of women out of work due to musculoskeletal complaints had surged by 47 per cent to 126,000 in the five-year period, while the number of women out of the labour market because of conditions like cancer increased by 15 per cent, hitting 19,000.

Meanwhile, the number of women economically inactive as a result of depression, anxiety and mental illness rose by 27 per cent to 69,000.

The TUC also warned that cuts to local preventative services could be contributing to the rise in long-term sickness. Women are more likely to work in sectors such as social care, retail and hospitality, where insecure, precarious, and poorly paid work is especially common, researchers said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Our £2.5bn Back to Work Plan will help over a million people, including women, with long-term health conditions break down barriers to work.

“We are also reforming the benefits system so that it’s fairer on the taxpayer and makes sure those who can work, do work. This includes enhancing support for people with health conditions and disabilities through programmes like WorkWell, and reforming the fit note process so people can return to and stay in employment.”

The government’s Women’s Health Strategy saw a £25m investment in women’s health hubs in its first year, and has focused on improving access to hormone replacement therapy and boosting research into women’s health.

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