Nuffield’s Healthier Nation Index 2023: Shining a light on the cost-of-living crisis, mental health, nutrition & loneliness

According to Nuffield’s Healthier Nation Index 2023, 76% of those surveyed did not reach the NHS recommendation for moderate physical activity per week.

Related topics:  Health & Wellbeing,  Report
Tabitha Lambie | Editor, Protection Reporter
29th July 2023
"Nuffield's Healthier Nation Index makes clear the positive actions people can take to support their mental health as well as the persistent challenges many people are facing."
- Professor Andy Smith, of sport and physical activity at Edge Hill University

Nuffield’s Healthier Nation Index is known as one of the most detailed reviews of physical and mental health in the UK. This year Steve Gray, chief executive of Nuffield Health, stressed that it’s “never been more important to talk about the nation’s health and wellbeing” with the latest report reflecting on the health-related implications of a global pandemic, international conflict, and the worst cost-of-living crisis in over a decade.

Commenting on the nation’s overall health, Dr Davina Denisczcyc, charity and medical director at Nuffield Health, said that “the majority of adults in the UK report worsening health,” with younger people, those with long-term health issues and lower earners representing the most affected factions. Nuffield found that financial health was the most impacted, with 48.5% of those surveyed (8,000) saying it had become slightly or significantly worse. This was followed by sleep (40.1%), physical health (35.1%), mental or emotional health (33.7%), and social relationships (30.7%). Although eating habits and family relationships were negatively impacted, of those surveyed, a higher percentage felt these areas had improved (32.2% and 35.5%).

When asked what they thought was negatively affecting people’s health in the UK, 63.2% said the cost-of-living crisis was having the biggest impact, followed by processed food (48.1%), lack of physical exercise (45.9%), and loneliness or social isolation (40.9%).

Notably, only 24% of those surveyed achieved the NHS recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Nearly two thirds (63%) of those aged 25-34 said this was due to the cost of exercise. Paul Johnson, clinical fitness national lead at Nuffield Health, said that “as with the pandemic, we know that the impact of the cost-of-living crisis will not be evenly felt.” Although younger people are being hit the hardest, he believes that “it’s vital that everyone has the opportunity to move more to support their physical health.” Podcaster and author, Amy Lane was equally concerned about “the impact the cost-of-living crisis has had, slamming the brakes on our activity levels.”

Meanwhile, 38% felt that depleting mental health support was having a significant impact, as well as unhealthy food advertising (35.7%), social media (32.6%), long-term effects of the pandemic (31.9%), burnout (28.7%), and extreme weather (16.2%). Only 7% of those surveyed didn’t think anything was negatively impacting people’s health in the UK.

Discussing the nation’s mental health, Professor Andy Smith, of sport and physical activity at Edge Hill University, explained that “as a nation we are becoming more aware of the serious impact that poor mental health has on overall wellbeing.” He felt that Nuffield's Healthier Nation Index “makes clear the positive actions people can take to support their mental health” as well as the “persistent challenges many people are facing in relation to their mental health” with the cost-of-living crisis, sleep, social relationships, and access to timely and effective mental health support identified as key issues.

When asked how their mental or emotional health had changed over the last twelve months, 39.4% said it was neither better nor worse, while 33.8% said it was slightly or significantly worse. 17.8% said their mental or emotional health was slightly better, 8% said it was significantly better, and only 1.2% said they’d prefer not to say. Again, the cost-of-living or change in personal finance (including impact of increased energy and household bills) was cited as having the biggest impact, followed by sleep (48%), work (44.1%), health issues (40.6%), news and media coverage (38.2%), loneliness and social isolation (35.9%), eating habits (35.1%), and personal or family relationships (33.5%).

Speaking with Tracey Crouch MP for Chatham and Ayesford and world’s first loneliness minister, she felt that these findings “shine a light on the important but often neglected issue of loneliness” that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “While loneliness can affect anyone, it is striking that over two thirds of people aged 16-24 feel lonely at least once a week, with 20% saying they feel lonely every day,” she explained.

Furthermore, 30.8% felt that reduced access to healthcare was having a negative impact on their mental or emotional health, as well as climate change (25.2%), social media (24.9%), care giving responsibilities (24.8%), long-covid (17.4%), waiting for an operation/surgery (17.2%), and childcare (14.9%). Commenting on these statistics, Dr Lisa Cameron MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahgow noted that, although “improving access to mental health services and supporting the NHS workforce to deliver care is vitally important, it is only part of the solution.” She believes a “long-term and holistic approach which recognizes the link between physical and mental health is fundamental if we are to improve the nation’s mental heath and wellbeing.”

According to the Healthier Nation Index, 49.2% of those surveyed had up to 6 hours of sleep per night for the last month, with an average of 5.9 hours of sleep. Only 9.2% of adults had between 8+ hours of sleep. Louise Wright, physiology national lead at Nuffield Health, highlights that perhaps “more worrying is the finding that nearly half of UK adults (45%) report that they have gotten less sleep in the last 12 months compared to previous years, and nearly half (49%) say their sleep quality has worsened in the last year.”

Discussing the nation’s nutrition, Nuffield Health found that a third (34%) of people aged 16-24 believe their inability to cook is a significant barrier to eating healthily compared to just under one in five (19%) of adults in the UK. Additional factors included the cost of healthier foods (47.3%), convenience of unhealthy food (40.2%), energy costs (40.2%), dislike for healthier food (21.6%), poor understanding of healthy versus unhealthy food (17.1%), or the benefits of eating healthy (12%). Given that nutrition is such an important part of wellbeing, Dr Unnati Desai, nati0nal general practice lead at Nuffield Health, found this cost barrier to eating well of serious concern. “It is vital that everyone can afford healthy, nutritious food and has the confidence to know how to cook it,” she explained.  

Finally, of those in employment, Nuffield Health found that 68% of adults in the UK have gone into work with illness, while 63% said they have gone into work with poor mental health – 7% higher than in 2021. Marc Holl, head of quality (primary care) at Nuffield Health believes this proves that “any strategy to build a healthier nation must ensure that the that the working population is properly supported to look after their mental and physical health, to improve their long-term health outcomes as well as their short-term productivity.” Likewise, Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool Business School, believes that there is “not only a health imperative but a clear business incentive to make sure employees are able to look after their mental and physical health properly.”

“It falls on all organisations to create the conditions in which employees have sufficient psychological safety to raise both physical and mental health conditions and see the support that they need to help them thrive at work,” she explained.

Furthermore, Dale highlights that the remote workplace is often “very sedentary which is associated with a range of negative health outcome.” Although “more time for wellbeing and exercise is often quoted as a benefit to remote work,” she believes that the Healthier Nation Index demonstrates that “perhaps this, for some people at least, may not be turning into a reality.” Professor Marc Jones of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University agreed that “the relationship between the opportunities for home working and physical and mental health is something that should be explored in future surveys, given that the nature of work has changed for many.”

What’s next?

Looking into the future, Nuffield Health proposes three key principles to achieve collective and meaningful change:

- We must make health and wellbeing the national priority,

- We must address the root causes of ill health,

- We must mobilise all parts of the healthcare system, not just the NHS.

To read the full report, follow the link here

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