DWP PIP warning as 'vicious cycle' sees record number of Brits fall sick due to three factors

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More people applied for out-of-work sickness benefits in the first four months of this year than ever before, according to statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Health experts have warned that, whichever party ends up overseeing benefits, they will need to break the "vicious cycle" causing more and more people to become too sick to work.

The number of new applications for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) sickness and disability benefit in the first quarter of 2024 grew to a record-breaking 250,000, with 84 per cent of applicants (210,000) approved for the benefit. Researchers at Lancaster University recently attributed the rise in sickness to the conditions that many unwell or disabled Brits find themselves working in.

Alice Martin, Head of Research at the university's Work Foundation, has argued that this rise in sickness can be linked to poor employment conditions, saying: “The truth is our workforce is getting sicker and yet not everyone gets the time off they need to live healthy lives. The current low rate of sick pay compels some people to work while they are unwell to make ends meet. "

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More than half of the 1.1 million workers in the UK who do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay are women, while a third are disabled. The research showed that this lack of access to appropriate levels of sick pay, lower levels of regular time off, and a lack of planning for routes back into work, all contribute to the 2.83 million people who are of working age but now signed off work due to ill health.

This spike in sickness is an increase of almost one-half since 2021. Alice Martin went on to explain: "This risks compounding existing health conditions and can lead to people dropping out of the labour market altogether.

“We currently have a record 2.83 million people economically inactive in the UK due to long-term health issues – and our previous research suggests many of these people want to work but aren’t given the necessary support to do so.”

The DWP launched a crackdown on disability benefits just a few months ago, amid the early warning signs that PIP claims were spiking. With an intention to consult on policies that would see the payment scrapped and changed into a voucher for equipment, many disability campaigners had criticised the government's plans - which have now been dropped for the general election.

What the research showed

The research into employment statistics and practices across the economy by the Lancaster University team revealed Victorian-like working conditions for many people on lower pay - with many forced to work longer hours to make ends meet, while living with a disability or medical condition that is only made worse by their hours of labour.

This is even played out in the statistics for how much time off work certain classes within society get each year to rest, recuperate, and enjoy life outside of employment. Further analysis showed that in 2022, employees with above-average earnings of £32,882 a year or more, had on average two more days of annual leave entitlement than those with lower incomes.

Almost a third (32%) of those earning above the average had an annual leave entitlement that exceeded 30 days. Whereas, the same allowance is only available to a quarter of those who earn a low incomes (25.4%).

This can create a "vicious cycle", as people with lower incomes and insecure work lives find themselves having to risk their health by having less time away from work for holidays and other forms of leave.

Alice Martin added: “Forecasts suggest that a growing number of workers will be grappling with major illnesses year on year.

“It is imperative that the next Government works with employers to create an effective plan to enable workers to have healthier working lives – or the UK’s sickness crisis is likely to worsen. This includes ensuring people have time off to rest and recuperate.”

Amongst the report recommendations, the Work Foundation is calling on the next Government to:

  • Strengthen statutory leave policies through a comprehensive Employment Bill within the first 100 days in office

  • Reform Statutory Sick Pay by:

  • removing the lower earnings limit and enabling SSP to start on day one of illness

  • creating a roadmap for increasing SSP to 60% of usual wages or the equivalent of Real Living Wage, pro-rated by the usual number of hours worked, whichever is highest

  • providing a Government rebate on offer to support smaller employers who might find it challenging to meet the cost of sick pay

  • ensuring flexibility of sick pay to support a phased return to work

  • Create a Single Enforcement Body for Employment Rights to enforce Statutory Leave and Pay entitlements

  • Commission an Independent Review on Statutory Leave and Pay to establish the fairness, flexibility, and suitability of leave for the future labour market as the pension age rises.