Recognition of the link between regular work and good health should be a key part of the government's attempts to tackle long-term unemployment, an expert has suggested.

Professor Stephen Bevan, Fit for Work UK chair and director at The Work Foundation, called on all political parties to develop policies that combine health and employment outcomes for people with long-term conditions.

He cited some figures that highlight the importance of good employee absence management strategies, with 140 million working days lost to sickness every year, at a cost of over £13 billion.

This is a problem that policymakers "cannot afford to ignore", according to Professor Bevan.

While the Work Foundation director welcomed efforts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to improve support for people with disabilities and long-term conditions, he also stressed the need for work to be introduced as a "clinical outcome" for such patients.

Research conducted on behalf of Fit for Work UK shows that the longer an individual with a disability or long-term illness is out of employment, the harder it is for them to return.

About 40 per cent of people with chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis leave their job within five years of diagnosis, according to the figures, while workers with multiple sclerosis typically leave 18 years before their healthy colleagues.

Professor Bevan said: "Employment has an important positive, therapeutic and economic impact on the life of an individual with a long-term illness, providing financial autonomy, self-respect, dignity, quality of life, and a sense of self-worth.

"Yet historically, successive governments have not taken the necessary measures to integrate health and work outcomes for patients."

He also stressed that this problem cannot be tackled by one political party or department alone, with a cross-party, collaborative approach required to join up health and work policies.

In a statement released earlier this year, Professor Bevan said the Work Programme – a government scheme designed to help benefit claimants find and stay in employment – was failing people with long-term health problems.

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