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Conservative Home How can we enable those with long-term health conditions to remain at work?

Image How can we enable those with long-term health conditions to remain at work?

Working into older age will force us to address what we should be considering now: how to enable those with long-term conditions to remain in the workplace.

Last week the DWP published a report called ‘Fuller Working Lives‘ which explained the benefits of working longer – in other words, not retiring early. A short précis would be: forget it, it’s better for everyone if you carry on working. As well as the financial consequences – stopping work 10 years short of the retirement age could cost someone more than a third of their pension pot, according to the government – health reasons were cited, too. “Boredom, loneliness and poverty” could (and do) negatively impact people’s mental health. Aimed at those who have stopped working due to redundancy or ill health, the report was heavy on the economic reasons to work but practical advice on how to get support if you are out of work due to ill health were light to the point of invisibility. It made me wonder for whom this report was written.

To be fair, the ‘Health and Work’ service is coming at the end of this year for those who have already been off work for four weeks, which is just what we called for in our “Health, disease and unemployment” report in 2010, along with occupational health support and an advice line. Those developments are important, but we wrote that report before the current ‘Work capability assessments’ (WCA) were ramped up (they had been introduced by Labour in 2007).

Apparently we are in the second week of DWP’s ‘Older claimants fortnight’ (June 9th – 23rd), so it is with some irony that this coincides with Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week and our latest report in partnership with the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) on the impact of chronic fatigue on people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The new report raises some interesting questions about the way ‘invisible symptoms’ are assessed during WCA welfare claims. Three years ago an independent reviewer appointed by the Department for Work and Pensions recommended the introduction of a new descriptor to cover fatigue and pain in the WCA, but this never happened. This is a major omission, not just for those with RA - fatigue is a common, debilitating symptom of many conditions including clinical depression.

A quarter of those who developed RA experienced job loss within a year and 50% of sufferers stopped work within six years. The numbers are significant when you consider that around 690,000 adults have RA in the UK, with approximately 26,000 new cases diagnosed each year in England alone.

There are several pertinent messages for policy makers in this report, Invisible Disease: Rheumatoid Arthritis and Chronic Fatigue, that are reminders to us all that we need to consider the implications of working longer while many are dealing with their own long-term medical conditions.

Research is already underway on the health risks and benefits of extending working life, but the reality for those with RA today is that many who are out of work wanted to stay in work, and some of those who were told to retire early are now being told they should return to work. A ‘Year 5’ review of the WCA is currently in progress, but considering there have already been four such annual reviews, it does seem astonishing that still nearly half appeals against the WCA decision were upheld.

If no consideration is given to fatigue when considering WCA welfare claims, or in the incoming right for anyone to request flexible working for all employees, then vulnerable people will continue to suffer unjust hardship.