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People blame the economy and work for ill-health – not just the NHS

Exclusive data by Opinium for the Fairness Foundation has shown that the majority of people believe social determinants are making them sick.

By Zoë Grünewald

A majority of people believe that their health and the health of their families is being undermined by the cost-of-living crisis and by their jobs according to polling by Opinium for the Fairness Foundation, shared exclusively with New Statesman Spotlight today (20 November).

In a ground-breaking public attitudes study, the Fairness Foundation has unveiled striking insights into the web of factors influencing the health and well-being of people in Britain. The report, titled “Socially Determined”, analyses fieldwork carried out by Opinium in September this year, with a nationally and politically representative sample of 2,038 adults across the UK. The results shed light on a growing awareness among the public that health outcomes are connected to a range of social determinants beyond individual choices and healthcare quality.

One of the most significant revelations from the study is the pervasive impact of work on people’s health across age groups and income brackets. Sixty-nine per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds, 64 per cent of working individuals, and 63 per cent of those in households earning over £60,000 identified work as a negative influence on their health. This highlights a concerning trend in which working conditions, long hours, stress and workplace injuries, for example, are playing a substantial role in compromising the well-being of a significant portion of the population.

On Wednesday Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, is expected to announce new measures to address mass long-term sickness in the UK. The ONS has calculated that the number of people out of work because of long-term sickness is now over 2.5 million. While the government is expected to focus on the introduction of punitive disability benefits measures and back to work schemes to bring this figure down, there has been little discussion about the importance of improving working conditions or increasing wages.

Moreover, the Fairness Foundation study delves into various social and environmental factors contributing to poor health. Sixty-two per cent of respondents expressed concerns about inadequate healthcare services affecting their health or that of their families. Additionally, 50 per cent pointed to the economic situation as a negative influence on health, which shows widespread recognition of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. The report further revealed that 52 per cent of individuals recognise the effects of their own lifestyle choices on their health.

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When presented with case studies on various health issues, respondents overwhelmingly acknowledged the role of economic and environmental factors in people’s health rather than solely blaming the state of the NHS or individual lifestyles. For example, when respondents were shown a case study from person B, who suffered with generalised anxiety disorder, a strikingly high proportion of respondents (47 per cent) identified the impact of poverty on this person’s health as the most important factor. In many different cases, respondents identified factors such as lifestyle, poverty, work and the environment as the most important, over healthcare. This nuanced understanding of health determinants challenges typical perspectives on healthcare responsibility, and suggests public appetite for a holistic approach to health across policy areas, rather than just focusing on the NHS.

As for addressing health inequalities, the study uncovered a shift in public opinion. While respondents still put some responsibility on individuals, a significant number said they believed that the government must address societal issues. Notably, 52 per cent supported raising taxes to increase spending on health inequalities, including 44 per cent of 2019 Tory voters. Only 7 per cent advocated for reduced spending in this critical area.

The findings do show, however, that there is still public appetite for improving NHS waiting lists and GP appointment times. While 23 per cent of respondents considered reducing health inequalities a priority – marking a notable increase from previous surveys – it still ranked lower than making it easier to get GP appointments (52 per cent), increasing the number of staff in the NHS (49 per cent) and reducing wait times for planned operations (44 per cent).

Will Snell, chief executive of the Fairness Foundation, underscored the importance of recognising the broader factors impacting health: “Ordinary Brits know that the problems facing the NHS are only part of the picture when it comes to their health. The polling should be a wake-up call to employers. People know that social determinants, like poor working conditions and poverty, go hand-in-hand with individual lifestyle choices in impacting their well-being. Businesses need to do more to address the impact of work on health.

“And it’s a myth that the public don’t see the state as playing an important role. We urgently need an ambitious government programme to tackle health inequalities and an end to the idea that the public oppose state intervention.”

The full “Socially Determined” report from the Fairness Foundation is here.

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