Health fears leading to economically inactive older workers

New UK research highlights the role of the pandemic and fears around mental and physical health as key factors in making employees aged 50 and over economically inactive

Why have so many people in the over-50 age bracket gone missing from the workforce? That’s a question that economists are asking right now as staff shortages contribute to a rise in inflation.

If you are someone who is out of work, not actively looking for work or not waiting to start a job, you are considered to be ‘economically inactive’. In the UK, research by the Office of National Statistics suggests that around 27 per cent of 50- 64 year olds are ‘economically inactive’, which is a 2.4 per cent increase since before the pandemic. This means that the workforce is missing a significant numbers of older workers.

This decrease in staff over 50 can be explained by the long-term physical and mental health effects of the coronavirus, experienced by almost 2.5 million people in this age group in the UK.

Mental health: stress and grief

In the report, 19 per cent of the 50-55 age bracket said that stress contributed to their economic inactivity. But what are the factors that make this age group feeling stressed?

Firstly, one in five people aged 50-64 are carers for an ill, older or disabled family member, friend or partner. People in this age bracket tend to have caring responsibilities that may demand a large proportion of their time which can be a stressful role in their lives. Consequently, people may become economically inactive due to the stress caused by having to balance working full-time with looking after young children or other relatives.

Secondly, in the UK, as of November 2022, coronavirus took the lives of approximately 197,000 people. Due to lockdown restrictions, family and friends were cut off from their usual support networks and therefore physical comfort became limited during times of bereavement.

Grief is another potential causal factor in members of this age group becoming economically inactive. The trauma and anxiety of losing a loved one during a pandemic was felt deeply and only communicating via technology was not a replacement for true in-person connection with family and friends.

Physical health: long-term conditions

The Guardian highlights the experience of Melanie Green whose arthritis medication negatively impacts her immune system and who has stopped working to avoid the risk of catching the virus in the workplace. Individuals are at higher risk of Covid-19 if they have an autoimmune condition and/or if they are receiving treatment to control their immune system.

Workers with autoimmune conditions feel unsafe to return to work and could become economically inactive because of their need to shield from the dangers of the virus. Researchers suggest that 15 per cent of autoimmune conditions manifest after the age of 55, making this age group more likely to develop these types of conditions.

To summarise, economic inactivity can be explained through both physical and mental health conditions that employers need to be aware of when thinking about the age profile in the workplace.


Alice Edwards is a researcher and writer with WORKTECH Academy.
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