Workforce health – a missing piece in the UK productivity puzzle

The 37 million people that make up the UK working age population1 are the greatest economic and resource we have. The physical and psychological health of the working age population is often discussed as a health issue, a social issue, or a welfare issue, but it is even more than this. We at The Work Foundation (like many others) believe that the poor health of the UK workforce is also an issue for UK productivity and UK growth. There needs to be cross-government recognition of the multifaceted issue of poor health in the working age population.

Last year we launched our Health at Work Policy Unit to examine the policy implications of the workforce health challenge.  The Unit builds on the work of Dame Carol Black, who as government’s National Director for Health and Work in 2008 published a seminal report ‘Working for a Healthier Tomorrow ‘, outlining the costs and the challenges of poor workforce health.  Seven years on some progress has been made, including the introduction this year of the Fit For Work occupational assessment and advice service, and the ‘Work and Health’ joint unit (established by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health). Such steps are positive, but unemployment among people with health conditions remains high, despite many people with health conditions being both able and motivated to work. Indeed, finding the right job can also result in improved health. With an ageing population, higher retirement ages, and increasing chronic conditions exacerbating a situation we are already not managing well enough, we argue that there is much work still to be done.

Today the Health at Work Policy Unit publishes its ‘policy challenge’ to the UK government. ‘Investing in a Workforce Fit for the Future’  provides an overview of four key workforce health challenges which require positive action now, as well as providing policy recommendations to help government address them.  These are based on the four white papers produced by the Unit to date.

One in three UK employees has a long-term health condition2 and, as outlined by Dame Carol Black, ‘the workplace can be a key setting for improving people’s health and well-being’. The first challenge to government therefore is to incentivise employers to take action to support and manage their employees’ health, through providing access to appropriate support, and through creating jobs and working environments conducive to good health. Our recommendations are designed both to support those employers who have already got this message to do more, and encourage those employers who have been left behind to do what is  both right and beneficial for their business.

Our second challenge is supporting individuals with long-term conditions to return to work, and to remain in and be productive at work. An estimated 15 million people in the UK have a long-term health condition.3 The employment rate for people with long-term health conditions is only 60%4, reducing sharply for those with more than one condition.5 Government back to work programmes (e.g. the Work Programme) have had limited success supporting people with health conditions. For those who are in work, their health may be affecting productivity: over half of all long-term sickness absence is attributed to mental illness and musculoskeletal conditions.6  This need not be the case. Many of these conditions are chronic and fluctuate over time, but with the right support they often can be managed at work. We need greater recognition among employers and employees, as well as among health professionals, that good work is often beneficial for health.7 Providing ‘good work’ and utilising its benefits should be a government priority.

The variation in employment and health outcomes throughout the UK indicates the importance of our third challenge: driving action at a local level.  To create healthy and productive local economies, we need to better support the development of locally appropriate solutions. Many local authorities (such as Greater Manchester) recognise the size of the issue in their jurisdictions, but financial constraints and the low priority of workforce health at national level prevent them from pushing their health and work agendas forward. Workforce health is not just an issue for the local health community, but for the business community too. Our recommendations aim to increasingly focus local attention on this agenda across a range of stakeholders, and to improve the sustainability of locally developed, specialist solutions which address the specific needs of the local community.

We estimate that by 2020 one third of the workforce will be aged 50 plus,8 and the potential implications of an ageing workforce are widely recognised. Despite the very positive contribution of older workers, who bring many valuable assets to businesses and to the economy, they often face considerable stigma, with misconceptions about productivity and ability further exacerbated when they also have a health condition. Our fourth and final challenge is in supporting the 3 million plus older employees with health conditions. A combination of poor employer knowledge about how to support health conditions, a lack of flexibility in the workplace, and negative attitudes about older workers presents a considerable barrier to work retention and to employment. Changes to policy can encourage employers to take a more practical and empathetic approach to the reality of the workforce, recognising the many benefits of retaining older workers and providing them with effective, relevant support and flexibility  to allow them to remain in work.

We believe that the Government and other stakeholders should consider our recommendations for change, which will contribute to building a healthy, productive UK workforce that is fit for the present, and fit for the future.



1 ONS (2015) Overview of the UK Population. Accessed from:–england-and-wales–scotland-and-northern-ireland/mid-2014/sty—overview-of-the-uk-population.html

2 Steadman, K., Wood, M., & Silvester,H. (2015) Health and wellbeing at work: a survey of employees, 2014. London: The Stationery Office. Accessed from:

3 Department of Health (2012) Long Term Conditions Compendium of Information: Third Edition.  Accessed from:

4 Department of Work & Pensions (2015) Working age people in Great Britain by main health problem: Data. Accessed at: [August 2015]

5 Hind and Steadman (forthcoming) Secondary analysis of 2013 HSE data: comorbidities in the working age population.

6 Department for Work and Pensions. (2014a) Analysis of the Labour Force Survey, October 2010 – September 2013. Accessed at: [August 2015]

7 Waddell and Burton (2006) Is work good for your health and well-being? An independent review. Accessed at:

8 Taylor, P. (2007). Employment and labour market policies for an ageing workforce and initiatives at the workplace. National overview report: United Kingdom. Dublin: EuroFound.