Report reveals that ill-health and disability has risen with longer life

With the proportion of life spent in good health in decline, are workplaces flexible enough for employees with long-term conditions?

A report has found that while general life expectancy has risen, the proportion of people living with “ill health and disability” has risen too, suggesting that employers must support a workforce that will likely include older employees, those with disabilities, and other long-term health conditions.

The rise of ill-health

The report by the UK think tank International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) urges the Government to help people live longer, healthier lives as part of its “Build Back Better” plan to support economic growth following COVID-19.

While the ILC report found that “estimated overall life expectancy at birth has increased for both men and women”, rising from 72.9 years in 1990 to 79.2 years in 2017 for UK men and from 78.5 years in 1990 to 82.7 years in 2017 for women, it hasn’t gone hand-in-hand with long-term good quality health.

While “men gained 1.7 years of independent life, and women gained 0.2 years” between 1991 and 2011, ill-health and disability have been increasing; add the impact of COVID-19 on public health and the Government’s 2035 goal to “deliver five additional years of healthy life for all,” looks unlikely.

The report also found that “inequalities between socioeconomic groups in terms of life expectancy without disability at age 65 tripled between 1991 and 2011.”

In response to these findings and the impact of COVID-19, ILC has demanded that “urgent action is needed to invest in preventative health interventions, such as vaccinations, screening and early detection of disease, alongside a greater focus on targeting under-served communities most affected by the pandemic.”

Dr Brian Beach, a Senior Research Fellow at ILC and report author, said: “Increased longevity is a success story, but the opportunities that stem from this will not be maximised if the extra years are spent in poor health or with increased levels of disability and dependency. Our new report – unfortunately – provides further evidence that the UK’s position in this respect is worsening, with gains in overall years outpacing gains in healthy years.

“Moreover, the research reinforces the lessons that have been made stark through the course of the pandemic – that socioeconomic inequalities remain prevalent, with the least advantaged members of society suffering from worse outcomes. A key finding here is how the most advantaged have seen improvements while the least advantaged saw little change.

“As the UK moves into recovery from COVID-19, political pledges to ‘build back better’ will only be fulfilled if policies actively reduce the kinds of inequalities that have grown since the financial crisis over a decade ago.”

Professor Carol Jagger, AXA Professor of Epidemiology of Ageing, Newcastle University, added: “Although the widening inequalities we found are concerning, our project also highlighted that some progress had been made over the 20 year period in respect of the disabling consequences of long-term conditions.

“Though a greater proportion of older people reported the majority of conditions in 2011 compared to 1991, the gains in life expectancy at age 65 for people with long-term conditions were mostly years free of disability. This was also true for older people with multiple long-term conditions.

“So early diagnosis, as well as effective treatment could help older people with long-term conditions slow down the progression of these conditions and reduce their disabling effect.”

What the Government and employers can do

While BAME communities and those in economically deprived areas have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in the UK, supporting the report’s recommendations that the Government reprioritise community health needs is a good start. While some health conditions could be prevented via screenings, early detections, and vaccines, there will always be people with chronic, life-long, and irreversible illnesses and disabilities who need adjustments and accommodations from employers to participate in the work economy and plug the disability employment gap.

With people living longer, the age of retirement may continue to rise as people try and save as much as possible; with this in mind, employers should ensure work conditions are flexible to support staff, including older employees, who may not benefit from a traditional 9-5 workday where flexible hours and remote work options could be beneficial for this group as they would be for people with illnesses and disabilities.

For the UK to really ‘build back better’ following the economic impact of the pandemic, getting as many different groups, including BAME, older and disabled talent into the jobs economy is going to help the Government realise its goal of economic growth – and make workplaces more inclusive in the process.

To download the report, please click here.
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