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Stronger safety and health will get young people back into work

Date posted
28 February 2024
Corey Edwards
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

Figures show more than half-a-million 18 to 24-year-olds are being prescribed antidepressants. Young people are more likely to be off sick from work than those in their early 40s. Our economy demands that more needs to be done to support younger workers, writes IOSH Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager Corey Edwards.

A recent report from the Resolution Foundation reaffirmed our view that younger people are disproportionately more likely to be not working due to ill-health. Still shockingly, however, their research found there’s a better chance someone in their early 20s won’t be working because of their health than someone in their early 40s.

Traditionally, there’s been a parallel between age and absenteeism, with older workers more likely not to be working because of sickness. This continues to be the mainstream workplace misperception of today; the reality is, the trend has reversed.

Official data shows more than a third of 18 to 24-year-olds report symptoms of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, with more than half-a-million from that age group being prescribed antidepressants in 2021-22.

Notwithstanding additional factors, such as the pressures of social media and the shortages and unaffordability of housing, there is a clear correlation between health and employment. Young people entering the workplace, naturally, lack experience and find themselves in more precarious jobs with inferior employment rights (certain protections only kick in after two years of employment). Likewise, in the post-pandemic world, there is a greater likelihood new workers will not be physically on-site every day, with consequentially reduced levels of support, regular check-ins and the opportunity to form bonds.

Work to do

Employers must work to address such concerns, and good occupational safety and health practices can be integral in achieving just that. Strikingly, more than a quarter of working-age Britons are presently unemployed or economically inactive (long-term sickness being the most common reason), and with the current trajectory, that problem looks like it’s here to stay.

We must prevent the workers of today becoming the economically inactive of tomorrow. This aligns with the Government’s priorities of growing the economy, cutting NHS waiting lists and reducing debt.

But it is in the interest of employers to better fund occupational safety and health for their workers, notably younger workers, in order to retain talent. A 2022 Deloitte study showed 45 per cent of young people (aged 18-29) indicated they had either intentionally left their job in the past 12 months or were planning to do so, with 65 per cent of them suggesting their decision was driven by poor mental health.

"We advocate a prevention-first approach to keeping people in work. We encourage the development of a minimum framework for quality occupational health provision, plus access to work coaches, physiotherapy and mental health treatment. And while we wish the Government success in launching programmes to bring people back to work, we urge it to revisit progressing the much-needed Employment Bill and the draft Mental Health Act Reform Bill, both of which were regrettable omissions from the recent King’s Speech."

Job role

We must also address the growing need for better mental health support for young people before they enter the workforce. So, the latest pre-Budget news that the government is to invest £8 million in a much-needed national network of expanded mental health hubs for children and young people is very welcome. We also warm to promises made by Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting MP, to deliver 8,500 mental health professionals and commit £750 million to fund mental health support in every school.

Early intervention is key to resolving this mental health crisis but the help that’s offered needs to be comprehensive and it needs to be consistent – there should be no question of there being a postcode lottery.

Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year through absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Yet studies have shown that every £1 invested by employers in the mental health of their people brings a return, and that return can be as much as £5. We’ll continue at IOSH to call for investment in good occupational safety and health practice because it yields valuable returns. It certainly should never be seen as an avoidable cost.

Last updated: 07 March 2024

Corey Edwards

Job role
Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager


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