Did you know that 4,090 people in the UK are too sick to work because of IBS? That’s the number of people who claimed incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance in February 2007 and who cited IBS as the main reason for their claim. (For my further-flung readers, incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance are ‘social security’ allowances, ie: government money for people too ill to earn a living).
Let’s put that 4,090 figure (the most recent figure that has been released) in context. There are perhaps 40 million people of working age in the UK. Now, IBS comes in degrees, and you’d have to have severe IBS to stop you working completely.
So, let’s say 0.5% of the 40 million people have severe or very severe IBS, and that gives us 200,000 people, rather more than the four thousand odd who currently claim benefits. Even if we go down to 0.1% of the population, that’s 40,000 people, which is still 10 times the 4,090 figure.
To arrive at a figure of 4,090 you have to go down to 0.0001% of the working population. That’s quite a small number. And this is out of a total of 2,704,100 people on sickness benefits, which is a startling number in itself.
And things get even more startling if we compare the figures for IBS to those for other disorders – an astounding 506,800 people claim for depression, 50,000 for alcoholism, and 54,320 for epilepsy. I would have thought there would be at least as many IBS sufferers unable to work as there were epileptics unable to work, wouldn’t you? Is depression really 123 times as common as severe IBS? IBS is after all often cited as the second most common cause of absenteeism, so lots of us clearly struggle to earn a living. So where’s all our money?!
But before we get all worked up about the injustice of it all, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, the stats are “are based on [government] staff’s interpretation of what can sometimes be quite vague information about the disabling condition on medical certificates”. In other words, the stats are compiled by a spotty 20 year-old who is paid minimum wage to do a crushingly boring data entry task, may occasionally nod off while he’s doing it, and has to interpret all kinds of vague medical scribblings and then shove them into just one category.
So that means that all of the figures and categories should be taken with a pinch of salt. Plus, of course, plenty of people will come under more than one category – there might well be a lot us IBS types hidden in the ‘depression’ category, or the ‘anxiety disorders’ category, because for whatever reason the depression or anxiety is considered the ‘main disabling condition’, rather than the IBS.
Secondly, I don’t actually believe that 2,704,100 people in the UK are too sick to work. Some people are on benefits fraudulently, and perhaps many more are genuinely sick but not really sick enough to claim benefits – you can find whole towns where huge numbers of people are on incapacity benefit, and it’s linked to unemployment and poverty and general grim reality rather than a ridiculously unhealthy local population.
So 4,090 people with IBS so severe that it prevents them from working, who have no other primary disorder such as depression, might actually be about right.
Perhaps the most useful thing we can learn from these statistics is that it is possible to get sickness benefits for IBS alone. One of the most common misunderstandings about the benefit system is that there is a magic list somewhere of all the disorders that qualify for payments, and if your illness is on the list then you’re sorted.
That’s just not true. It’s more about assessing each individual case and exactly how your illness affects your life and your ability to work, and IBS, with its pain and its discomfort and its marathon bathroom sessions, is just as valid a disorder as anything else.
So if you are suffering from IBS, and you find yourself unable to work, for goodness’ sake apply for benefits. As any IBS sufferer will know, you sure deserve them.
(Just out of interest, when these stats were first released some of the newspapers had a very exciting time ripping the government to shreds, first because of the sheer number of people on benefits, which is fair enough, but also because some of the medical conditions cited in the statistics were seen as ridiculous reasons to claim sick pay.
I read articles that were sneeringly dismissive about all kinds of conditions, including migraines, sleep disorders, and depression. Because, as you know, migraines are a bit of a headache, sleep disorders make you yawn a lot, and depression robs you of the ability to sing along to Harry Connick Jnr in the shower. Luckily, I didn’t see anyone insult the IBS sufferers, but I hate that idiotic brand of self-satisfied, judgemental bleating that comes out of people who are lucky enough to have no real idea of what they’re talking about.
On the other hand, I have to admit that even I, who will always be on the side of the sick person, was a little baffled by some of the categories – 40 people claim for ‘nail disorders’, and 50 for ‘acne’? I suspect a spotty 20 year-old with a sleep disorder has got his categories in a bit of a muddle…)