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16 February

Forcing sick people into work only makes the economy sick

It’s a vicious circle – aggravating illnesses only puts more pressure on the NHS.

By Emma Haslett

For better or worse, the pandemic taught us a lot of lessons: about how long we can go without talking to another human being, about how quickly we can all profoundly change the way we live – and about the dangers of dragging your sorry carcass into work when you’re unwell.

There’s nothing more pathetic than the sight of a person determined to prove how committed to the job they are while coughing and spluttering all over their desk. And during the pandemic, it became socially unacceptable: at a time when bringing your sniffle into work could result in half the company being taken out by the same virus, taking a sick day suddenly became the only considerate thing to do.  

But things are different now: sick days are causing actual damage to the economy. Labour market figures published yesterday (14 February) by the Office for National Statistics showed the number of people who have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic because they are experiencing either temporary or long-term sickness rose to almost 376,000 in the final quarter of last year. This sudden departure of more than a third of a million workers has caused uncomfortable “tightness” in the labour market that means employers are having to pay higher wages – which, economists have warned, could eventually lead to prices, and therefore inflation, spiralling out of control.

It’s a pickle, for sure. Luckily the Conservatives have, according to a report in the Telegraph, found the perfect solution: make people go to work, even if they’re sick. According to the article, officials from the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are considering urging doctors not to offer sick notes to people with long-term illnesses. Instead, they are to signpost ways to “work with support”. At the moment, employers can request a sick note, known as a “fit note”, signed by a GP, from employees who are off work for more than seven days.

It doesn’t take an economist to explain why this idea is terrible. Firstly, sick people have not historically been known for their excellent rate of production. Pain, frailty and exhaustion are rarely conducive to workhorse-esque attitudes, so dragging people with chronic illnesses into the workplace is hardly going to fix the UK’s ongoing productivity crisis. Secondly, forcing people who are sick into work will, inevitably, lead to their illnesses becoming worse – putting even more pressure on the NHS.

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The economist Andy Haldane, currently the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts but formerly the chief economist at the Bank of England, warned of the consequences of having a sick workforce last November. He said in a speech that for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, “health and wellbeing are in retreat”. The UK “sits towards the bottom of the pack” of the G7 when it comes to spending on healthcare. Therefore, he said, “it should come as no surprise that we… see macroeconomic headwinds such as a record number of unfilled vacancies. We haven’t got enough people.”

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The message from this seems obvious, but might need spelling out for the Tories: force people back into the workplace when they are too sick to be there, and you will only prolong their – and the economy’s – woes. Treat the cause of the problem – a crisis in the NHS caused, originally, by years of drastic underspending, but badly exacerbated by the pandemic – and people will find their own way back into the workplace. Or, as they say in medicine: treat the cause, not the symptom.

[See also: Energy company profits show where the real money is being made]

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