Workers 'to get health appraisals' under bid to cut long-term sickness

Workers to get ‘health appraisals’: Ministers plan subsidies for firms to do annual checks as part of push to stop long-term sickness knocking people out of jobs market

  • Government battling to cut number of people classed as economically inactive 

Workers could get annual ‘health appraisals’ under government plans to crack down on long-term sickness.

Ministers are looking at giving companies generous subsidies to provide occupational health services.

The move – a trial of which is expected to be announced by Jeremy Hunt in the Budget next week – has emerged from Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride’s review of surging economic inactivity.

The number of working-age people who are classed as inactive has topped nine million – 6.6million excluding students – with health issues often blamed. 

According to the Sunday Times, the initiative could mean annual ‘health MOTs’ alongside normal appraisals to identify issues such as obesity.

It has apparently been backed by Health Secretary Steve Barclay who wants a greater focus on illness prevention to reduce the pressure on the NHS.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride has been carrying out a review of surging economic inactivity in the labour force

The scale of the Covid hit to the UK workforce was laid bare last week as ONS figures showed inactivity numbers have risen nearly twice as fast as expected

ONS projections have found that based on population changes alone inactivity could see a further 317,000 rise by 2026

A government source told the paper: ‘The more we can mobilise employers to do more testing, the quicker we can start to pick up on conditions before employees even know they have got a problem. 

‘Just like having an annual appraisal, you would have an annual health MoT, which would then be used to direct individuals to the most appropriate place for support.’

In a worrying sign for Mr Hunt’s Budget package, the OBR watchdog is said to be sceptical about the government’s prospects of cutting inactivity levels – which will be key for future economic performance.  

Discussions have been held with bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry, British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Large companies typically have in-house occupational health, or use private providers. 

However, ministers acknowledge it can be prohibitively expensive for smaller firms.

Mr Hunt is expected to announce a trial that could allow SMEs to claim back 80 per cent of the costs of occupational health services. The scheme would be expanded later if it shows promise.

The scale of the Covid hit to the UK workforce was laid bare last week as figures showed inactivity numbers have risen nearly twice as fast as expected.

Just 59 per cent of the half-a-million strong increase in those classed as economically inactive – not working despite being the right age – can be explained by demographic changes.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) modelled how factors such as the ageing population should be affecting the workforce, and then compared those estimates to what had actually happened.

It concluded that overall around 200,000 of the rise was not down to demographics. 

That change was focused almost entirely in two age groups. In the 18-24 range inactivity was projected to fall by 18,000 – but in fact had risen 29,000 by the third quarter of last year.

Jeremy Hunt is expected to use his Budget next week to announce a trial that could allow SMEs to claim back 80 per cent of the costs of occupational health services

Despite the surge, inactivity numbers look to have been offset by a dramatic fall in stay-at-home parents

In the 45-59 age band there was expected to be a fall of 5,000 in inactivity, but the number actually rose 200,000. 

The article examined reasons for inactivity, and found that long-term sickness increased by 462,000 over the three years. The model suggested the figure should have been just 41,000.

In the younger age groups increases were attributed to more people being students, but also a surge in ‘mental illness and nervous disorders’.

In the older age bracket the issues seem to be more to do with health than early retirement, as has been mooted previously. 

It was mainly attributed to ‘other health problems or disabilities’ – which could include long Covid – and ‘problems connected with back or neck’. 

There was a 44,000 spike in numbers who were inactive because they had retired early, but the demographic model suggested that figure should have been 87,000.

‘The increase in the number of people retiring early may be smaller than expected because of the recent policy changes to the state pension age,’ the article said.

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