By Jon Franklin and Rachel Gomez

An estimated 2.4 million people in Great Britain have previously served in the armed forces – that’s about three in every 100 people. The vast majority of veterans successfully transition to civilian life and lead fulfilling post-service lives, which is a huge credit to the forces and the ecosystem of organisations which exist to ease that transition. But a notable minority of veterans find life difficult. For this group, navigating the transition can create an emotional burden that lasts for decades, or even the rest of their lives. Managing health after leaving service and reintegrating socially back into civilian life, including in the workplace, are factors that can impact veterans’ wellbeing in ways that are very different to their peers.

Many veterans, and those currently in service, are supported by about 1,700 armed forces charities, which as well as having superb expertise can have good data on the needs of veterans they’re working with. For example, usage data of the Veterans’ Gateway, an information hub for veterans and their families to access help and information from a network of organisations, suggests that in 2021, 24% of all searches were about employment, followed by finance and mental health.

This data can help shape support services. But data from those accessing support can only tell us so much. Crucially, it can’t tell us which of those veterans needed that support the most. Nor can it tell us the extent to which demand for a service is related to the fact it’s available in the first place, or how comfortable people feel in seeking out different types of support. For example, over 50% of veterans are understood to have long-term mental or physical health issues, and according to the NHS at least half surveyed found it difficult to speak up about their mental health issues. It’s essential we understand more about what matters to those veterans with the highest needs so society can better support them – and that is the focus of this blog.

Combining traditional indicators of need – such as health conditions or employment status – with data about the wellbeing or quality of life of ex-service personnel can give a much clearer idea of the scale of need that exists. PBE analysed the Annual Population Survey 2016-2018 data to understand the number of ex-service personnel in Great Britain with low wellbeing, their geographic spread, and their health and employment outcomes. In the survey, veterans were asked “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”, and gave a score of between zero and 10. Although simple, this measure of wellbeing has been demonstrated to provide a good assessment of someone’s overall quality of life. A score of four and below is defined as “low” – it is likely to indicate that somebody is in need of support and is the definition of low wellbeing used in our analysis.

About one in 20 veterans report low wellbeing, compared to one in 25 non-veterans

First off, an estimated 127,000 veterans reported low wellbeing over the period 2016-2018, as measured by their levels of life satisfaction. This is the equivalent of around 5.3% of all veterans – a statistically meaningful difference to the non-veteran population (4.4%). Given the gaps in more recent data it’s trickier to be as certain about what this means for the number of veterans today. But, between that period and 2022/23 the percentage of the UK population with low wellbeing rose from 4.5% to 5.7% – in other words the rate itself increased by 27%. Assuming the rate of veterans with low wellbeing increased proportionally, as many as 160,000 veterans could be experiencing low wellbeing today. While it’s not in the scope of our study to control for other factors (i.e., we haven’t accounted for the fact that other background drivers, like age, might be driving at least part of this wellbeing difference instead), our analysis suggests we can be reasonably confident that the difference in levels of low wellbeing are not just down to random chance. In other words, we can be fairly confident that veterans are more likely to have low levels of wellbeing.

But, just as with the general population, we know that the experiences of veterans are shaped in part at least by where they live. Natural surroundings, community cohesion, employment opportunities, healthcare provision and support services vary from place to place, so we can expect that veterans with low wellbeing will be concentrated in some areas more than others. Our analysis suggests that Yorkshire and Humberside (15,000), the South East (14,000) and Scotland (14,000) have the highest number of ex-service personnel with low wellbeing.

However, Yorkshire and Humberside (6.8%), Wales (6.8%) and Merseyside (6.4%) have the highest percentages of ex-service personnel struggling with their personal wellbeing. In some ways this better reflects the “need” for support in different areas as the total numbers can be affected by the overall population size and number of veterans. However, all of these estimates are based on small sample sizes at a regional level – so these numbers and probabilities should be taken with caution. The data could be reflecting how, for example, support services for veterans in Wales might improve by learning from their peers in the South East. But it could instead show that the overall landscape, such as the labour market for example, might be providing more acute challenges for veterans in Wales than in the South East. These insights should provoke more discussion and research to allow for more confident conclusions about why these regional disparities exist, and how to bring everyone up to a level playing field. 

Veterans with low wellbeing are more likely to face chronic health conditions and worse employment outcomes

Overall, ex-service personnel with low wellbeing are disproportionately more likely to struggle with two of the key drivers of wellbeing for the general population – health and employment status.

Ex-service personnel with low wellbeing experience long-term health conditions at significantly higher rates. While under four in 10 non-veterans (37%) report having long-term health conditions at the time of the survey, this goes up to 51% of all veterans. Moreover, around three-quarters of veterans with low wellbeing report having long-term conditions (73%). This suggests that, perhaps unsurprisingly, a given veteran experiencing low quality of life is more likely to face a long-term health condition than not. This highlights the need for veterans’ support to be sensitive to health needs and consider how services ensure that they are accessible.

Over a third of veterans with low wellbeing reported a condition that affected their limbs, and 8% noted that they had long-term mental health conditions. It should be noted that these numbers only refer to the reported primary health condition; individuals are likely to have secondary health conditions (and so on), which are not reflected in these numbers, so we expect that the percentages of veterans managing these types of conditions in general are much higher.

Figure 4: Conditions affecting the limbs are more prevalent among veterans with low wellbeing than other conditions

Estimated prevalence of primary health conditions by type, in number and proportion of veterans with low wellbeing

  Estimated population Proportion of total
Disabilities related to arms, hands, legs or feet 44,951 36%
Mental health conditions 10,463 8%
Other conditions 36,488 29%

Unfortunately, working age veterans with low levels of wellbeing typically experience poorer outcomes in the job market. More than six in every ten ex-service personnel of working age with low wellbeing were out of work (64%). This far outstrips the quarter of non-veterans (26%), and two in every ten of other working age veterans (21%). It is important to note that veterans with at least medium levels of wellbeing are marginally more likely to be in employment than non-veterans; this adds credence to the idea that rather than seeing veterans as a monolith, efforts to best support veterans back into civilian life may be most needed, and most effective, when focused on those with low wellbeing.

Given the data available we are not able to tell whether low wellbeing drives poorer employment and health outcomes or vice versa. In reality, the relationship is most likely to be complex, with health, employment and wellbeing all impacting on each other. Therefore, it is important to consider how support can be offered across a range of challenges on a case-by-case basis. It also highlights the need to be patient in the provisions of support –supporting with multiple, complex needs will take longer and may very well hinge on the quality of their healthcare, and whether their accessibility needs are met. Continued collaboration by veteran-focused organisations could be invaluable in providing much-needed holistic support for veterans with multiple acute needs.

Overall, our evidence highlights that the vast majority of ex-service personnel are doing well. However, there is a significant minority that are struggling. This group of around 160,000 individuals are likely to be those in greatest need of support from the vibrant and innovative armed forces charity sector. Our research highlights that they are disproportionately likely to require support with their health and find it harder to maintain employment compared to the wider population. However, other evidence highlights a wide range of support needs including financial and housing support. Charities working directly with ex-service personnel have the unique strength in understanding the lives, experiences and needs of those that they support.

Wellbeing data provides a valuable perspective on the level of need in the sector, independent of the current provision of services. Greater use of this data could help to ensure better targeting of services provided. For example, if we focused on long-term health conditions alone there could be 1.2 million ex-service personnel that could need support. However, the vast majority of these individuals are doing OK – just 92,000 of them are experiencing a low quality of life, as measured by low wellbeing, and these are the individuals that the sector should aim to support. Wellbeing can also provide a valuable tool for measuring the impact of support provided. This can help us to understand how best to support those ex-service personnel that are struggling and, ultimately, drive up their quality of life over time.

Top of FormWe would like to thank Walking With The Wounded for their generous financial support for this research.