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Long Covid – What do employers need to consider?

COVID-19 may be little more than a cold for many people and, after a week or two, they return to normal activities with little or no change to their health. However, for some, long-term health issues remain, even in cases where the initial illness was relatively mild. People suffering from ongoing health issues related to COVID-19 are described as having long COVID and, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, by the end of May 2022, 1.56 million people reported having symptoms of COVID for over 12 weeks. The same study noted that it was most prevalent in people aged 35 to 69 years old, so it’s clear that this condition is impacting people currently in the workforce. It’s important that employers understand the potential impact of long COVID on their employees, so we’ll be exploring it in more detail in this blog.

What is Long COVID?

Long COVID is defined by NICE as ‘signs and symptoms that develop during or following an infection consistent with COVID-19 which continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis’.  The most common long-term symptoms are breathing issues, fatigue, and cognitive dysfunction but a wide range of other symptoms have also been noted.  These include vertigo, blood pressure changes, menstrual changes/early menopause, autoimmune conditions, and depression, along with a host of other symptoms.

Diagnosing long COVID is made trickier by the fact that this is a new condition, and lots of research is still being done to understand it.  On top of this, symptoms can fluctuate and change during the illness so an individual may feel capable of managing activities, and then find that they experience a relapse at a later point.

Is it a disability?

The Equality Act’s definition of a disability is that is has to have a long-term negative effect on an individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.  Long-term means that the effect must be felt for at least 12 months.  Due to the fact that COVID is a relatively new illness, and its symptoms vary, it’s too soon for it to be classed as a disability under the Equality Act.  However, if an employee has serious symptoms, and they continue for a long time, it could be diagnosed as a disability for that individual.  Where this is the case, an employer would need to act in accord with disability discrimination laws or they could find themselves on the wrong side of an employment tribunal.

What can employers do to support employees?

Diagnosis can be tricky, as physicians are still learning about the illness and its effects so it’s important to work with employees to understand the impact of COVID on their health.  In cases where many return to work with no ongoing impact to their health, it may be difficult to understand why others are having ongoing struggles.  Because of this, employers need to view their employees concerns seriously, not presuming that an employee is exaggerating illness to get additional time off/reduce their responsibilities.

If an employee is off for a period of time, you will want to keep the lines of communication open.  Being away from work can cause disengagement, so keeping in touch and ensuring an employee is up to date with important information will hep them to stay involved with the business.

As the range of potential symptoms is vast, manage concerns on a case-by-case basis.  By talking to the employee and asking how its impacting them, you will gain a much deeper understanding of what help they may require and what health issues they are facing.  You may find it helpful to get occupational health services involved in discussions.  This allows for an additional opinion on the condition and will help to show that you displayed reasonableness when making decisions related to the employee.

There are many options which could benefit an employee as they recover from long COVID.  You could potentially offer a phased return to work or a return on reduced hours.  An employee may benefit from a longer lunch break or from more breaks during the day.  There may be options for hybrid or home working which could reduce fatigue caused by travel to and from an office.  As symptoms of long COVID can fluctuate, it’s important that communication is on-going so that adjustments can be reviewed, and altered, if required.

Managers will play a vital role in supporting an employee, so you may also want to consider training them in how to manage situations relating to long-term illness.  This will benefit them in handling any other situations that crop up so is a very useful piece of development. 

If you would benefit from support in training managers in managing illnesses in your organisation, please get in touch with View HR so we can discuss how we can support your business.