How employers can support employees suffering from long COVID
An estimated 1.5 million people (2.4% of the UK population) were experiencing self-reported long COVID-19 as of the end of January 2022. The impact of long COVID is something we’re still only just beginning to understand, but one thing is clear: it’s having a big effect on the workplace.
In a recent
report of 3,765 respondents with long COVID, 45% reported that they were working reduced work schedules and 22% were not working due to their health condition. Similarly, in a TUC survey of 3,557 workers with long COVID, only 57% had returned to work fully, with 16% returning to reduced hours.
So, what is long COVID? Why and how is it leaving people unable to work? Can people return to work after long COVID – and how best can employers support them in doing so? And most importantly, how can occupational health help?
What is long COVID?
While most people recover from COVID-19 within a few weeks, some patients experience lingering symptoms for months after.
Long COVID, or post-COVID syndrome, is described by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as: “Signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.”
It usually presents with clusters of symptoms, often overlapping – and those symptoms can change over time. Older people, women and the unvaccinated are more likely to be affected
Symptoms of long COVID
Research involving 500,000 people by Imperial College London found there were two main categories of ongoing symptoms:
A smaller group of people experiencing respiratory symptoms, such as a cough or breathlessness, who were more likely to have had a severe illness initially
A larger group with a cluster of more general symptoms, particularly tiredness and fatigue
When diagnosing long COVID, doctors ask about symptoms and their impact on a patient’s life.
Tests like blood tests, blood pressure and heart rate checks, and chest X-rays could be suggested to explore the symptoms a bit further and rule out other possible issues.
Is long COVID a disability?
Employees with symptoms that have lasted or are likely to last at least 12 months and which impact on their ability to undertake daily living tasks are likely to be covered by the disability provisions of The Equality Act 2010. While ultimately this is a legal decision, employers will need to consider making reasonable adjustments to accommodate affected employees.
It could be costly if you get this wrong, so it’s really important to treat long COVID seriously at all times.
How does long COVID impact on the workplace?
It’s important as an employer to be aware that the effects of long COVID can come and go. On some days the person might seem well, but on others their symptoms can be worse, and they might need to be off work again or need adjustments, such as the ability to work from home.
Many thousands of employees with long-term health conditions have experienced similar challenges as those with long COVID.
You might not think it’s likely to affect you and your business, but
CIPD research has found nearly half of firms have employees who have experienced long COVID during the last year, with one in four (26%) now listing the condition among their main causes of long-term sickness absence.
So, how should employers help?
The CIPD’s research found employers had put some effective processes in place to support staff. The majority (70%) of employers that had employees with long COVID symptoms said that they offered occupational health assessments and 60% said they offer tailored support for individuals affected.
Work is generally good for health, and many people work effectively despite significant illness or disability – but it definitely helps to provide support to employees returning to work after long COVID. Otherwise, some may decide they’re unable to ever work again.
Everyone’s experience after COVID-19 is different and it can be incredibly challenging for some. Yet, for many people, getting back to work in some capacity (not necessarily full time or to the same duties) is important for financial reasons, improving mental health, social reasons, and to give them the best chance of staying in work in the long term.
How Occupational Health can help
CIPD recommends – from their own research of long COVID in UK workplaces – that employers provide access to occupational health services in a timely and accessible way for employees with long COVID. They say this is vital to make sure employees feel safe in returning to work and can thrive when back.
Occupational health professionals specialise in health and work and have professional expertise in helping people return to work after illness. They have working knowledge of the workplace and, together with their medical knowledge, they are best placed to advise on workplace health and prevent people being made sick by their work.
So, how can ELAS Occupational Health help employers manage employees with long COVID?
Get an independent medical assessment to return employees to work
ELAS Occupational Health can assist in assessing an employee’s medical fitness to return to work to a given job role and can advise on adjustments to allow the employee to return to work safely.
As the pandemic evolves and we face the reality of dealing with coronavirus in the long term, businesses are moving from prevention to support. This is certainly the case with instances of long COVID, which are on the rise.
Doing what you can, as early as you can, will improve outcomes and help manage long COVID absences in future. Your timely intervention will not only help anyone in your team who is experiencing debilitating symptoms of long COVID, but will also ensure that those who are unwell make a fuller, quicker recovery.
Better manage long-term absences
The usual advice for long-term absences involves proactively managing absence and keeping an appropriate level of contact with absent employees. Managers should follow any long-term absence procedures and understand the symptoms and reasons for any absences with the support of our occupational health advisers, where appropriate.
Seeking occupational health input from an ELAS Occupational Health medical professional could be useful at all stages – from establishing the severity of symptoms and prognosis, to considerations for recovery and the appropriate hours and duties during any phased return. Medical advice may be needed, and underlying health conditions may delay recovery.
Get case-by-case advice and guidance
With ongoing symptoms and an uncertain prognosis, there’s a dilemma for both employees and employers – when is the right time for a return to work and what level of workload is appropriate? Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s therefore recommended that workers with long COVID are referred for an individualised assessment with occupational health, so that appropriate advice can be provided.
ELAS Occupational Health professionals are experienced in assessing new conditions as well as diseases that are poorly understood. The emphasis is on assessing an employee’s functional ability alongside the demands posed by their individual workplace.
Help employees manage the psychological and physical effects of long-term sickness absence
Our teams are well experienced in advising on adjustments and support for employees who have been absent for a long time, by communicating advice to relevant managers (after getting consent from the employee).
Our occupational health professionals have the experience to understand that, when the duration of illness is long, returning to work too soon or to a full workload can cause relapse. They can help in the following ways:
Tackle long COVID with ELAS Occupational Health
Long-term sickness absences and presenteeism have a huge impact on your business’ productivity and profitability – and those are two of the very real threats posed by long COVID. So, to help keep your employees in work and maintain their health and safety, we recommend working with our experienced occupational health professionals. Led by our Chief Medical Officer (CMO), they know how to support businesses in all industries to help them meet their legal requirements and keep their employees safe, happy and in work.
Contact us today to see how we can help your business – simply call 0161 464 9609 or fill out the form on this page.