Long Covid is a term that is used when a person who has had Covid-19 experiences ongoing symptoms following infection, that cannot be explained by some other cause. According to the NHS website, people may experience a range of symptoms, including extreme tiredness (fatigue), chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration (known as “brain fog”), and depression and anxiety. The full NHS list is available here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/long-term-effects-of-coronavirus-long-covid/, however some studies have identified over 100 associated symptoms.
A study published by gov.uk in the summer of 2021 indicates that over two million people in the UK may have experienced or are continuing to experience Long Covid symptoms, and that the likelihood of this increases for women and older people. As such, although there is still a lot about Long Covid that is not known, it is likely that many employers will employ people who are affected by this. In this blog we look at some key tips for supporting an employee with Long Covid to return to work.
A surprising feature of Long Covid that has been identified by research is that there does not appear to be a correlation between how ill the person was with Covid in the first place, and whether they will experience Long Covid (or how severely). As noted above, there are also a wide range of symptoms, and not everybody who has Long Covid will have these. As such, employers will not always be able to accurately predict how long an employee may take to recover (and will need to remember that if one employee takes longer than another, this does not necessarily mean that they are “skiving” or “milking it”!).
As such, it is important that employers seek to find out relevant information about each person and their condition. Conversation with and listening to the employee is critical to this, but seeking information from a medical practitioner (such as the employee’s GP, or an Occupational Health referral, with appropriate consent) may also be helpful.
As with any situation where an employee is unwell, the question of whether they are fit for work doesn’t have to be a binary “fit” or “not fit”. It may be that the employee is well enough to undertake some work but not their full hours (through a phased return), or another adjustment, such as ensuring they do not have to be too physically active and/or are able to take regular breaks, may enable them to return. Medical insight, as suggested above, can help make recommendations about what may be appropriate in each case.
It is also important to note that mental health may be affected by any long-term condition, and that anxiety and depression can be symptoms of Long Covid. As such it is important that employers consider how they can support mental health as well as physical wellbeing. Activities such as a return-to-work discussion, appointing a buddy, and in some workplaces provisions such as mental health first aiders or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can all play a part.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an individual is classified as having a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. Whilst Long Covid is a relatively new condition and not formally recognised as a disability, if an individual with Long Covid meets the following tests as a result of Long Covid, they may be regarded by an Employment Tribunal as being disabled:
- Does the person have a physical or mental impairment?
- Does that impairment have an adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities?
- Is that effect substantial?
- Is that effect long-term?
If an employee has a disability, they are entitled to reasonable adjustments to remove or reduce the effects of their disability. Employers who do not fulfil their responsibilities may face disability discrimination claims. As such, it is important that employers give careful consideration to how best to support employees who are experiencing Long Covid, and seek advice if they have queries about how best to do so.
Here at ViewHR we are experienced in working with employers to support employees to return to work when they have been off sick for a range of reasons. If you are an employer and would like to find out more, please contact us for an initial discussion today.