Impact of health problems on the labour market

Results from a special module in the 2011 Spanish Economically Active Population Survey show the biggest health issue among people aged between 16 and 64 was ‘back or neck problems’. The findings revealed that 8% of people had some difficulty carrying out their basic everyday activities. Among those who said they were ill, had some limitations, or both, 74.1% said their weekly working hours were not affected, while 7.7% said they needed special help to be able to work.

About the study

The Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE) published a report (in Spanish, 104 KB PDF) in June 2012 on health problems. The report was based on data from a special module of the Economically Active Population Survey (EAPS, in Spanish) for the year 2011, with particular reference to people aged between 16 and 64 years of whom there are more than 29,104,000 in Spain. The report discusses health problems and limitations in carrying out everyday activities by the active population, as well as their relationship with employment.

Key findings

Most common problems

According to the report, a total of 7,607,500 people aged 16–64 years (26.1% of the total) suffered from chronic illnesses or health problems during 2011. The most common ailment was ‘back or neck problems’, which affected 26.7% of the people suffering some illness. Broken down by gender, 29.2% of these were women and 23.9% men. The second most common ailment was ‘leg or foot problems’, which affected 9% of those people reporting a health issue.

Other health problems that were more common among women than among men included ‘arm and hand problems’ (7.8% compared with 5.1%) and ‘depression’ (4.4% compared with 2.4%). Illnesses which affected men more than women included ‘heart, blood pressure or circulatory problems’ (10.7% compared with 6.7%), ‘chest and respiratory problems’ (8.6% compared with 6.9%) and ‘diabetes’ (6.9% compared with 4.2%).

In addition, more than 2.2 million people aged 16–64 had more than one chronic illness or health problem.

Problems carrying out normal activities

A total of 2,342,900 people aged between 16 and 64 years had some difficulty carrying out basic everyday general activities. This added up to 8% of the total. Of these, 25.6% said their main difficulty was ‘lifting and/or carrying objects’, while 22.1% said it was ‘walking or climbing stairs’. More than 1.16 million had more than one limitation in carrying out their basic everyday activities.

Impact on the labour market

Among the more than 7.4 million people aged 16–64 in the labour market with some illness and/or limitation in carrying out their everyday activities, 74.1% indicated that the number of hours they could work each week was not affected by these health problems or limitations.

From a gender perspective, the percentage of men whose working day was not affected was higher than the percentage of women (78.8% compared with 70.2%). By age, the proportion of people without limitations decreased as age increased, from 86.9% for 16–24 year-olds to 66.2% for 45–64 year-olds.

One in three people (33.4%) stated that their illness limited the type of work they could perform. This limitation was an issue for more women (35.9%) than (30.6%), and also increased with age being 21.1% for people aged 16–24 against 39.5% for people aged 45–64.

Need for assistance in working

The survey looked at the number of people who said they needed ‘personalised assistance’ to be able to work. Some 7.7% of the people aged between 16 and 64 who said they had a health problem and/or difficulty carrying out their everyday activities indicated that they needed help. Broken down by gender, this worked out at about 328,600 women and 244,400 men. Special equipment was needed by 8.1% (341,400 women and 258,100 men) to do their jobs.

Reasons other than health affecting ability to work

A total of 686,900 people in the 16–64 age group said that reasons other than health problems interfered with their ability to work. This figure included 9.2% of the people with some illness or physical limitation. The main reason was ‘family or caring responsibilities’, given by 184,400 of the respondents.


The results of the survey show health problems have a significant impact on the work activities of the labour force in Spain. More than 25% of the economically active population claimed to suffer from some kind of chronic illness or health problem. The results also highlighted the important place that musculoskeletal disorders had among these health problems. The most frequent complaint by far was is ‘back and neck problems’, followed by ‘leg or foot problems’. These types of illnesses (together with ‘depression’) seem to affect more women than men. Men, meanwhile, appeared to suffer comparatively more from other sicknesses related to ‘heart and blood pressure’, respiratory difficulties or diabetes.

Antonio Corral, Ikei

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