New data released this week by the Office for National Statistics has found a huge rise in the number of employees on long-term sick leave, with more than two and a half million off work due to a health problem in the UK.

The report blamed an increase in mental health issues in younger people, as well as musculoskeletal issues such as back and neck pain for the rise.

On top of this, similar data released earlier this year by pensions and health consultants Lane, Clark and Peacock (LCP), shows how delays in non-urgent operations and poor management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease contribute to vast numbers of people not working due to long-term sickness.

For every 13 people currently working, one person is on long-term sick. Long-term sickness is particularly prevalent among 50-69 year olds. In spring of 2022, ill health accounted for 200,000 of 50-69 year olds leaving the workforce.

The impact this is having on businesses and employees is staggering. It’s estimated to cost the economy around £150bn a year – a cost that has risen by 60% in the past six years.

Employers can play their part in reducing long-term sickness by tackling ill-health among their employees. The latest Bupa Wellbeing Index data supports this, showing that a third of employees (33%) believe their employers have a responsibility to support their health and wellbeing. I’ve outlined ways in which they can do this:

Protect mental and physical health: Providing access to health and wellbeing services for employees is hugely beneficial. Not only does it help them to stay well while in work and manage chronic conditions, it can also help employees who are on long-term sick leave or in the process of returning to work.

Whether this is through access to remote GP services, mental health helplines, health insurance or employee assistance programmes (EAP), more than two-fifths of employees (42%) would be more likely to stay in their current role if it offered good health and wellbeing benefits, according to the Bupa Wellbeing Index.

Promote health benefits: We know that engagement of mental health services is crucial to catch problems earlier. Employers need to offer convenient, easy to use and personalised services that appeal to everyone – and most importantly, people need to understand where to find it. This ease of access is clearly important, the Bupa Wellbeing Index showed that nearly one in five employees (18%) were unsure about how to access mental healthcare through their work healthcare insurance policy.

Upskill line managers: The role of a line manager is key for an employee and can help them at a time when they may be struggling with their physical or mental health. Line managers hold the closest relationships to their employees and a supportive relationship in this area can help prevent long-term sick leave by addressing any issues, before it reaches this stage.

A line manager needs various skills to help their employee to manage ill-health. These include the ability to have empathetic conversations and providing guidance; for example, knowing what services are available to support employees and how to support them if they need to take long-term sick leave.

Look at how you can support and retain over 50s: Ill-health in the over 50s is a key factor which is driving people to leave the workforce and more needs to be done to retain them. Health insurance with fast access to cancer services or MSK (muscle, bone and joint) support can play a big part in keeping them well and in work.

Bupa’s data has also found that almost a million women left their job because of menopausal symptoms, and those who took long-term leave due to symptoms take an average 32 weeks. Companies need to do more to help support these women during this stage of them life, helping them to stay in the workplace.

Work plays a crucial part in most people’s lives, and not just in providing a source of income. It can give a sense of purpose and achievement, boost our self-esteem, and provide an opportunity to socialise and build friendships with our colleagues – so it is worrying that such a large number of people are currently on long-term sick leave.

At Bupa, we know that a focus on wellbeing allows businesses and their people to thrive, and that a business investing in its peoples’ health can only reap the long-term benefits.