LONG-TERM sickness has become the top reason for women being out of the labour market, according to new TUC analysis.

The analysis of official statistics shows that the number of women who are now economically inactive due to long-term sickness has increased by 503,000 (+48 per cent) over the last five years to 1.54 million – the highest number since records began.

Economic inactivity due to long-term sickness has risen steeply for both men and women over the past five years. The rise has, however, been bigger for women than men across this period – with the number of men inactive due to long-term sickness rising by 37 per cent. This means that women account for six-tenths (59 per cent) of the rise in economic inactivity due to long-term sickness over the past five years.

Further TUC analysis on changes in economic inactivity between the end of 2018 and end of 2023 looked at the main health conditions of those who are economically inactive due to long-term sickness. It found that:

  • The number of women economically inactive due to musculoskeletal issues (arms, hands, legs, feet, back and neck problems) increased by 126,000 (+47 per cent).
  • The number of women economically inactive due to conditions like cancer increased by 19,000 (+15 per cent).
  • The number of women economically inactive due to depression and anxiety and mental illness increased by 69,000 (+27 per cent).
  • The largest increase was in the “other” category, which saw a rise of 161,000 (+138 per cent).

The TUC said the sharp rise in long-term sickness was due to a combination of factors. This includes long NHS waiting lists and cuts to preventative services. Despite some recent small falls, the NHS waiting list stands stubbornly high at 7.5 million.

TUC analysis also shows a rise in the waiting lists for community health services. Between October 2022 (when the current data began) and March 2024, the waiting list rose by 135,000 (15 per cent) and now stands at 1.05 million. Across this 15-month period, there has been:

  • A15 per cent increase in adults waiting for musculoskeletal care.
  • A 25 per cent increase in adults waiting for physiotherapy.
  • In addition, 2023 was the worst year on record for cancer wait times.

The union body also highlighted the impact of cuts to local preventative services. Recent analysis by the Health Foundation shows that local authority public health funding per person remains 27 per cent lower in real terms in 2024/25 than in 2015/16. This has resulted in key preventative health services being cut – particularly in more deprived areas – despite the growing evidence of the financial and social benefits of prevention.

As well as this, health leaders have warned that rising demand for mental health services is not being met due to funding not keeping up with this demand, as well as staff shortages.

Another key factor in the rise in long-term sickness among women is job quality, says the TUC. Half a million more women than men are paid below the real living wage. And BME women are twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts than white men. Women are more likely to work in sectors including retail, hospitality and social care where insecure work and low pay are particularly prevalent.

Rishi Sunak announced last month that he was determined to crackdown on ill-health – but instead of improving access to treatment or boosting the quality of work, he proposed sweeping reforms to benefits. The TUC says that this is the wrong approach. Instead of stigmatising people who have become too ill to work ministers should invest in improving public services and crack down on insecure work.

The TUC General Secretary, Paul Nowak, said: “We need a proper plan for dealing with the sharp rise in long-term sickness – not cynical gimmicks. Instead of stigmatising people who are too ill to work, the government should be laser-focused on improving access to treatment and preventing people from becoming too sick to work in the first place.

“That means investing in local preventive services and bringing down our sky-high waiting lists. It means dealing with the chronic staffing shortages across the NHS and social care that are delaying patients from being seen when they need to. And it means improving the quality of work in this country – so that women are not disproportionately trapped in low-paid, insecure jobs. But instead the government is failing growing numbers of women who are unable to work because they can’t access the right treatment or support.”

* Source: Trades Union Congress