More than 2,500,000 people off sick for reasons including 'neck and back pain'

The number of people not working in the UK due to long-term sickness has risen to a new record, official figures show.

More than two and a half million are not working due to health problems – including back and neck pain from working from home – the Office for National Statistics said.

It came as the rate of UK unemployment rose to 3.9 per cent in the three months to March, up from 3.8 per cent in the previous quarter.

Most economists had expected the rate to remain unchanged at 3.8 per cent, but the new figure marks the highest level since the three months to January 2022, the ONS said.

The ONS blamed an increase in mental health issues in younger people and people suffering back and neck pain, possibly due to home working, for the rise.

Data showed, for every 13 people currently working, one person is long-term sick.

The number of vacancies also dropped by 55,000 to the lowest level for 18 months amid economic uncertainty weighing on the UK’s jobs market.

The ONS said this reflects ‘uncertainty across industries, as survey respondents continue to cite economic pressures as a factor in holding back on recruitment’.

But the figures also showed a rise in the employment rate to 75.9 per cent and a fall in inactivity as more men in particular starting looking for work.

In another sign of a flagging jobs market, the more timely PAYE figures showed the first fall in workers on payrolls since February 2021, down 136,000 to 29.8 million.

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, there were ‘well over 400,000 more people outside of the labour market due to ill health,’ Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, told the BBC’s Today Programme.

As well as an increase in mental health conditions and back and neck pains, Mr Morgan said there had also been ‘an increase in the category that includes post-viral fatigue, so perhaps long Covid having an impact’.

The latest ONS figures also showed the squeeze on pay remains, with wage increases failing to keep up with rising prices.

Growth in regular pay, which excludes bonuses, was 6.7% in the first three months of the year, and pay growth in the public sector was 5.6% – the highest rate since 2003.

However, when price rises are considered, regular pay fell by 2%.

In response to the latest figures, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said: ‘It’s encouraging that the unemployment rate remains historically low but difficulty in finding staff and rising prices are a worry for many families and businesses.’

But shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the government was a ‘drag’ on the economy with family finances ‘being squeezed to breaking point by a further fall in real wages’ and with fewer people in employment than before the pandemic.

Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, said: ‘Employment and unemployment both rose again in the first three months of 2023, driven in particular by men.

‘This means the number of those neither working nor looking for work continues to fall, although the number of people not working due to long-term sickness rose again, to a new record.

‘However, the number of people on employers’ payrolls fell in April for the first time in over two years, though this is an early estimate that could be revised later.’

‘Despite continued growth in pay, people’s average earnings are still being outstripped by rising prices.’

The data also laid bare the impact of strikes across Britain, with 556,000 working days lost due industrial action in March, up from 332,000 in February.

But the pay gap between public and private sector is narrowing.

The ONS said average regular pay growth for the private sector stood at 7% in the three months to March and 5.6% for public sector workers – with the latter being the largest since August to October 2003.

The figures showed the number of unemployed Britons rose by 60,000 to 1.3 million in the three months to March, while those in employment also lifted – by 182,000 to 33 million.

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