More than a million UK workers are unable to claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to their low earnings, potentially forcing them to work when they are ill, according to a new report by the Work Foundation at Lancaster University.

The report highlights that nearly two-thirds of the 1.15 million UK workers who fail to meet the SSP earnings threshold of £123 per week are women (69.2%). Additionally, a third are disabled (33%) and more than half are young workers aged 16-24 (52.4%). These groups are particularly vulnerable to working while ill, risking burnout and long-term health issues.

Compounding this issue, a new survey of over 1,000 senior business leaders in Great Britain, commissioned by the Work Foundation, reveals that almost half of employers (47%) only offer the statutory minimum level of sick pay, which replaces just 17% of a worker’s average weekly earnings. Meanwhile, just over a quarter of employers (27%) provide sick pay policies that either ‘moderately’ or ‘substantially’ exceed statutory requirements.

Financial Constraints and Administrative Challenges

Two in five senior business leaders (43%) cite financial constraints as the main reason their organisations do not provide enhanced sick pay. Other challenges include compliance with legal requirements (31%), perceived impact on staffing levels (31%), and the administrative burden and complexity of offering enhanced sick pay (28%).

Alice Martin, Head of Research at the Work Foundation, states, “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. This risks compounding existing health conditions and can lead to people dropping out of the labour market altogether.”

Economic Inactivity Due to Health Issues

Currently, a record 2.83 million people in the UK are economically inactive due to long-term health issues. Previous research by the Work Foundation suggests that many of these individuals want to work but lack the necessary support to do so.

The report also examines other leave policies in the UK and finds that lower earners have less access to paid time off. Analysis of Office for National Statistics data shows that, in 2022, employees with higher than average earnings of £32,882 per annum had, on average, two more days of annual leave entitlement than those with below average earnings. Almost a third (32%) of those earning above average incomes have annual leave entitlements exceeding 30 days, compared to a quarter (25.4%) of lower earners.

Vicious Cycle for Lower Earners

Researchers warn that this disparity creates a ‘vicious cycle’ where lower-income workers, who often face insecure work lives, risk their health due to insufficient time off. Alice Martin continues, “Forecasts suggest that a growing number of workers will grapple 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.”

The report also critiques the UK’s family-friendly and carer leave arrangements, finding them inadequate. Martin adds, “Workers on low incomes already lose out on time off because they can’t afford to take it, so the new right to carer’s leave that came into play this Spring will be no different. It is good that the Government acknowledges people increasingly need time off work to care for relatives, but we must pay them for it.”

Recommendations for Policy Changes

The Work Foundation’s report offers several recommendations for the next Government:

  • 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 the first day of illness. Additionally, create a roadmap for increasing SSP to 60% of usual wages or the equivalent of the Real Living Wage, pro-rated by the usual number of hours worked, whichever is highest.
  • Provide a Government rebate to support smaller employers in meeting the cost of sick pay and ensure flexibility of sick pay to support phased returns 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 assess the fairness, flexibility, and suitability of leave policies for the future labour market as the pension age rises.

These measures aim to address the inequities in access to sick pay and time off, supporting a healthier and more resilient workforce.