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Stephen Bevan


Employers Can’t Fill Vacancies

But many do surprisingly little to help workers return after a long illness

Published: Thursday, November 10, 2022 - 13:03

The UK was supposed to be facing a spike in unemployment after the pandemic furlough schemes ended. But instead the job market is the tightest in a generation. Given that there are also more vacancies than active job seekers, and many sectors are struggling with skill shortages, you might expect to see pay rising, productivity improving, and new job opportunities for those at the margins.

Yet real pay growth has been stagnating for at least a decade. Productivity has only recently climbed back to pre-2008 levels. And most worrying, we are seeing a participation crisis, with a record 640,000 increase in economically inactive people since the start of the pandemic.

The reasons why people choose not to work have changed considerably over time. “Looking after family or home” has declined significantly during the past couple of decades, while the number of students has increased. But perhaps the most dramatic change has been the number of people with long-term or chronic illnesses who have been leaving work altogether. With 170,000 people swelling the ranks of this group in the last month alone, they now total nearly 2.5 million—the largest number of long-term sick out of work in our history. The last time the numbers approached this level was two decades ago.

Explaining the shift

Long National Health Service waiting lists in the UK may account for some of the rise, especially among older workers with multiple or complex conditions and those with mental health problems. Long Covid is also probably playing a part, with 2.3 million sufferers and about 1.1 million (46%) with symptoms persisting for at least a year.

Another factor is people with long-term illnesses. Only 60 percent of working-age cancer survivors are back in work a year after finishing treatment, for instance. Cancer survivors are frequently highly motivated to resume work because it represents a return to “normal” life and can enhance their financial independence.

However, cancer, its treatment, and side effects often increase the risk of early withdrawal from the labor market. Up to 53 percent of cancer survivors have to give up work, and they are 1.4 times more likely to be unemployed than the average person.

For those who are able, the pathway back to work can be difficult. Employers must exercise compassion and recognize that a returning worker’s performance may be impaired for a while. A Norwegian study found that 31 percent of employed cancer survivors reported a reduced ability to carry out physical work because of cancer, and almost a quarter reported reduced cognitive ability.

Many employers also fail to help people with long-term illnesses to stay in or return to the labor market—despite the high vacancy rates. I recently co-produced a survey of 1,241 working-age cancer survivors in the UK. It wasn’t peer-reviewed because the cohort isn’t representative of the population as a whole, but hopefully it still gives a good insight into people’s experiences.

Many felt unsupported, and some were even dismissed or made redundant on their return to work. A third weren’t able to phase their return to work, and 25 percent had to take annual leave to receive chemotherapy or even surgery. Most returners reduced their working hours, with the proportion in full-time work falling from 73 percent before treatment to 46 percent afterward, despite more than half of survivors being the primary breadwinner in their household.

Most respondents said the emotional impact of cancer treatment far exceeded the physical consequences, and 93 percent reported side effects such as fatigue (93%), brain fog (68%), anxiety (60%), loss of confidence (55%), and pain (54%). Each is a hidden impairment, which proved difficult for many survivors. One says:

“One day my boss said to me, ‘Well, don’t expect any sympathy from us because you look marvelous.’”

Another recounts:

“I suggested that my workload be decreased for a few months, even accepting a lower salary. But my boss accused me of a go-slow attitude and eventually left me with no other option than retirement.”

It’s worth bearing in mind that cancer is a protected characteristic under the UK’s Equality Act 2010 (and similarly in the U.S. by the Americans with Disabilities Act). It is illegal to discriminate against someone for that reason.

The way forward

I have previously written about my own experience of cancer treatment and my eventual return to work, and I particularly appreciate the benefit of having a supportive employer. Perhaps it is little wonder that, in the face of difficulties at work, so many are opting for economic inactivity or early retirement.

Having 2.5 million working-age people with long-term illnesses who are economically inactive exacerbates skill shortages, increases inflation, and stifles economic growth. These people are usually not susceptible to sanctions or so-called “benefit conditionality,” so they can’t be punished back to work.

The answer lies in helping many more to avoid falling out of work in the first place and, if they do leave the labor market, deploying compassionate, personalized, and skilled job coaching and support to encourage them to return. The good news is that researchers are developing ever-more innovative ways of helping employers accommodate returning cancer survivors, often involving job redesign, peer support, and the training of line managers.

On the other hand, it is not a great time for the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions to be cutting 3,000 job coaches. The fact that the UK government is also keen to increase its use of sanctions against part-time workers who are unwilling to increase their hours is not a promising sign, either.

Let’s hope for a change of approach soon, before many of the long-term sick are lost to the economy forever.

This article was originally published by The Conversation on October 21, 2022.


About The Author

Stephen Bevan’s picture

Stephen Bevan

Stephen Bevan is the head of the HR Research Development at the Institute for Employment Studies. He has written for several publications, such as The Lancet and HR Magazine, and specializes in workforce health and well-being. His work has influenced policies on health and chronic illness within the workplace.