Improving employment prospects for people with long-term health conditions has been an objective of UK government policy for some time, and with good reason.
In 2017, the government published Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability, setting out the importance of expanding job opportunities for disabled people and those with lasting health problems. There are big potential gains associated with this policy. More individuals would be able to fulfil their potential and achieve economic independence. Creating a diverse workplace confers competitive advantages. And productivity would stand to get a boost: by preventing people from working, ill health is estimated to cost the economy £100bn a year.
There is evidence that the UK is making progress in this area. The employment gap, which measures the difference between the employment rate for people with long-term health conditions and that of the average population, has narrowed from 13.1% in 2017 to 10.6% in 2020. However, the aggregate statistics hide substantial regional differences. Where has the gap closed the most, and which parts of the country are lagging behind?
Figure 1: Employment gap between those with long-term health conditions and the overall population
Source: Public Health England
Figure 2: Employment gap in London boroughs
Figure 1 presents a nationwide picture of the employment gap by upper tier local authority, using Public Health England data from 2020/21.
There is strong regional variation, with the employment gap ranging from 0% to 23.6%. The north of the country has more areas with higher-than-average gaps than the south. There is also wide variation within London (Figure 2), which has some of the lowest and highest employment gaps in the country.
The three areas with the biggest employment gaps are all in London - Waltham (23.6%), Hackney (21.3%) and Newham (20.2%). They are followed by Redcar and Cleveland (19.2%) and Wolverhampton (19%). Waltham’s employment gap has widened by 7.2 percentage points since 2016/17, while Hackney and Wolverhampton have recorded smaller increases. By contrast, the gap has narrowed in Newham and Redcar and Cleveland, though by less than it has done across England as a whole.
What could this mean for policy?
A detailed, visual overview of where policy is having the greatest and the least impact (as in Figure 1) enables policymakers to focus their efforts on those groups or parts of the country that need the most help.
A better understanding of the effectiveness of measures to reduce the employment gap at the sub-national level can also help the government pursue its broader policy objectives. Two priority areas in particular stand out:
Levelling up: Those parts of the country where the employment gap is great or has widened since 2017 are likely to display other economic or social inequalities that need to be addressed. This is the aim of the government’s Levelling Up initiative, which seeks to change the UK’s economic geography and to narrow regional disparities.
Mitigating the impact of COVID-19: The lasting effects of the pandemic on physical and mental health are still coming to light. A lot of people are likely to experience long-term health problems in the coming years, with evident consequences for employment.
Decisive action to improve the job prospects of disabled people and those with long-term health conditions promises economic and social benefits for the whole of the country, not just the individuals being targeted by policy.