Long-term sickness has hit a record 2.5million, a shock official report revealed yesterday.
The worrying trend was blamed partly on back and neck pain caused by working from home.
A rise in mental health problems among young people and long Covid were also among the factors behind the surge, according to experts at the Office for National Statistics.
They said the number of working-age adults no longer in employment or looking for a job due to long-term sickness hit 2.55million in the first three months of the year.
That is an all-time high and nearly half a million more than at the end of 2019 – before the pandemic.
Warnings that the working from home pattern introduced in the pandemic was partly to blame. Pictured: File photo of woman working from home
The worrying trend was blamed partly on back and neck pain caused by working from home. Pictured: File photo of woman with back pain
It means that for every 13 workers, there is one person who is long-term sick. The disturbing figures prompted claims that a lack of investment in the NHS was damaging the economy.
Warnings that working from home was partly to blame will fuel worries about the rise in flexible employment patterns, which have been adopted by many employers since the pandemic and are promoted by Labour.
A simple lack of movement – such as strolling over to a colleague’s desk – could be to blame, according to one expert.
Responding to the figures, Tory MP Sir John Redwood said: ‘It’s a crying shame for the country and for the people concerned that so many people feel they have to be away from work long term because of their health. It would be good if we could find ways to improve their health so they can return to the life of the office.’
The data also showed that another pandemic trend – early retirement – had gone into reverse as the cost of living squeeze drove many back into jobs.
The ONS said 1,083,000 under-65s were retired in the three months to March, 93,000 fewer than in the same period a year ago. Darren Morgan of the ONS told the BBC: ‘We saw another increase in those exiting the labour market due to becoming long-term sick. That means we are at a new record level of comfortably over 2.5million.’
He pointed to analysis showing that the strongest increases in illness had been in ‘conditions related to mental health particularly in the young, a rise in people having musculoskeletal issues – problems connected to the back and neck’.
Mr Morgan said there were ‘some theories of the increase in home working contributing to that’, and that the impact of people suffering long Covid could also be having an effect.
Responding to the figures, Tory MP Sir John Redwood (pictured) said: ‘It’s a crying shame for the country and for the people concerned that so many people feel they have to be away from work long term because of their health’
Research by the ONS showed most of the rise in long-term sickness had come since early 2020, when the pandemic started. The figures showed tens of thousands more people reporting ‘disabilities connected with the back or neck’.
‘It is possible that increased home working since the pandemic has given rise to these kinds of chronic conditions,’ the report said. It also pointed to a spike in ‘depression, bad nerves and anxiety’.
Ash James of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy said: ‘We’re not surprised people with musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions are cited as rising and a high percentage of those having to take long periods of time out of work.
‘One reason could be working from home as this can lead to MSK problems but not in the way most people assume.’
Mr James said it was less likely to be caused by ‘slumping and slouching’ and more down to a lack of movement and less exercise overall. ‘We don’t have our walk from the car park to the office, we don’t walk to the photocopier, we don’t walk to speak to a colleague if we are working from home,’ he added.
The overall rise in long-term sickness comes at a time when NHS waiting lists have swollen to 7.3million, partly as a result of strikes by junior doctors, nurses and paramedics. The number of patients waiting for community musculoskeletal services stood at more than 290,000 at the end of March.
Chris Thomas of the IPPR think-tank said: ‘The Government needs to stop viewing investment in good health as a cost to control and instead see it is the best medicine for our economic malaise.’
Labour’s work and pensions spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘Today we see yet more evidence that this Tory Government is a drag on Britain’s economy. Family finances are being squeezed to breaking point by a further fall in real wages, fewer people are in employment than before the pandemic and the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has reached a record high.’