A man clutches his painful back

3.7 million workers suffer work-limiting health conditions

New analysis by the Health Foundation reveals that 3.7 million people (12% of the working age population) are currently in work and reporting a ‘work-limiting’ health condition that restricts the type or amount of work they can do. This has risen by 1.4 million over the past decade and almost matches the number of people with work-limiting conditions who are not in work.*

The new analysis coincides with last week’s Autumn Statement, which announced tighter sanctions for those out of work claiming benefits as part of the government’s drive to tackle economic inactivity. While there has been a strong focus on those out of work due to ill health, more action is needed to support employees with ill health.

The analysis also highlights a persistent earnings gap between those who report work-limiting conditions and those who do not. The ‘health pay gap’ for full-time workers is £2.50 per hour**, which means that people with a work-limiting health condition on average earn 15% less.

The analysis is published to coincide with the Health Foundation’s announcement of a new independent Commission for Healthier Working Lives. It finds that the rise in work-limiting conditions is being driven by a sharp increase in mental ill health, which has increased more than four-fold among 16-34 yearolds over the last decade. A 16-34 year old employed in 2023 is now as likely to report a work-limiting condition as someone in work aged 45-54 did ten years ago.

Across the workforce, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular conditions remain the most common form of work-limiting health conditions. However, work-limiting conditions do not impact people equally. For example, they are more likely to affect women and people living in deprived areas.

The findings suggest that the government and employers need to find new and better ways to encourage people to return to the workforce and help employees remain at work and in good health. Over the next 18 months, the Commission for Healthier Working Lives will partner with expert organisations to develop an evidence base and engage with employers, trade unions and other stakeholders to build a shared understanding of the growing challenge of working-age ill health and build a consensus on the action needed.

Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of the Health Foundation, said:

“With 3.7 million working-age people in work with a health condition that is ‘work-limiting’ and 2.6 million economically inactive due to ill health, the country has a significant problem. The impact of poor health on individuals and their families, whether they are in work or not, is considerable. And for the country, poor health in the working age-population will drag down productivity, the economy and add a huge avoidable burden on public services and employers. Fresh thinking and action is now needed, which is why the work of the Commission for Healthier Working Lives will be crucial.”

Sacha Romanovitch OBE, CEO of Fair4All Finance and Chair of the Commission for Healthier Working Lives, said:

“It’s really concerning that someone in full-time work with a health condition is likely to earn £2.50 less an hour than someone without one. It’s no surprise then that this will have a negative impact on their financial resilience and overall wellbeing. This analysis further highlights the impact that declining working-age health has on us all. It’s so important that we tackle inequality wherever we find it, and I look forward to leading the new Commission for Healthier Working Lives. Together we will contribute to lasting positive change for those in work, and help the government and employers find new opportunities to better help people thrive in their place of work.”


*According to the most recent Labour Force Survey estimates, there are 2.6 million working-age people out of the workforce that list poor health as the primary reason they are not in work or looking for work (‘labour market inactive’). However, a greater number, 4.8 million working-age people, are labour market inactive and have a long-term condition. Of this larger group, 3.9 million have a long-term health condition that is work-limiting.

**The ‘health pay gap’ is the difference in median hourly pay between full-time workers with work-limiting conditions and those without work-limiting health conditions. This figure is not adjusted for sector, age, gender or occupational differences between these groups.