Long Covid is a term we have heard flying around the news and taking over the headlines in the past few months, but what does it really mean and how can you support employees who are suffering from the condition?
Though the immediate effects of COVID-19 are well-known, we hear less about the people who are still suffering from symptoms months after contracting the virus. The crisis has intensified the challenges for many people’s physical and mental health and has impacted on our social connections as well as making us very aware of our financial security.
‘Long COVID’ is a term which is used after four weeks if your symptoms continue and prevent you from doing normal activities. The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in five people have symptoms after five weeks, and one in ten have symptoms for twelve weeks or longer after acute COVID-19 infection.
These symptoms and the long-term damage of COVID-19 on health and wellbeing remains poorly understood. Reported symptoms vary from breathlessness and heart problems to muscle pain and even neurological problems such as difficulty concentrating, fever and mental health issues. A list of the symptoms can be found by clicking on the following link https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/long-term-effects-of-coronavirus-long-covid/
Some people have been unable to work since they first contracted coronavirus, whilst others are working reduced hours or working remotely until they feel well enough to return. However, in some worst-case scenarios, employees face losing their jobs as a result of long-term sick leave.
Given the physical and emotional impact of the condition, it is important as an employer to know how to help and support your employees who could be experiencing symptoms.
Is ‘long COVID’ a recognised condition?
Although certain people may class long term Covid as a recognised medical condition, the medical profession has yet to give a diagnostic code for long Covid. For sickness absence reporting we know some employers have classified this as fatigue or general sickness, but you could create a code in your HR system for long Covid.
We are often asked if it could be classed as a disability in law. The Equality Act 2010 states a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a “substantial and long term adverse effect”. In addition, the condition has to be long term, meaning the condition must have lasted 12 months or be likely to last for at least 12 months. So, whilst the medical evidence has yet to set out how long the symptoms of long Covid could last, you can see it is possible that some may argue it could be a disability. Should this turn out to be the case then employers will need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to assist your team members at work.
How can you support your employees?
Whilst long COVID is a very complex and relatively uncommon issue, it is an issue that could affect your workforce, so it is important to be prepared.
We advise that you invest in health assessments and consider various ways to support employees who may be struggling. Firstly, managers should approach each employee who has stated they have long COVID individually and should avoid using a blanket approach. Start by discussing individual affects and symptoms, then from here you can tailor your approach based on the support they need.
If they are able to work, it is important that you enable them to do so by ensuring they have the equipment they need to carry out their work remotely if it’s possible for them to do so. Employers should be sympathetic to the situation and try their best to accommodate the employee’s needs by making reasonable adjustments or tweaks to working practices, such as reduced hours.
People with long-term health conditions, including long COVID, often need flexibility in order to manage their condition during the working day. By offering support and flexibility to the individual, they are more likely to feel confident and engaged.
Other adjustments to consider could be:
- Temporary alterations to workload, for instance giving fewer tasks than normal or allowing more time for work to be completed.
- Providing a clear line of supervision and a ‘buddy’ system.
- Time off for health appointments.
- Working from home some, or all of, the time
As we have indicated, there are many symptoms and medical professionals appear to be clear there is no set amount of time it will take people to be 100% fighting fit again. Add to this the increasing realisation that Covid-19 will be something we have to live with as part of our future, you should regularly review your plan by taking into account multiple scenarios and timelines.
Failure to support employees suffering with long COVID.
In a worst-case scenario, if you fail to acknowledge the impact of long COVID on your employees, you could face employment disputes for not providing sufficient support to a staff member with a long-term health problem.
It can also be difficult to encourage staff to return to work if they have suffered from a long-term illness, especially if they haven’t received adequate support. Employees may feel disengaged and undervalued and may question whether they want to return to work at all.
In short, long COVID should be treated as a long-term illness, although it hasn’t officially been recognised as such. Providing lots of support and flexibility wherever possible will not go unnoticed. Your employee is more likely to remain engaged and committed to their work if they feel they are being supported through a very difficult period. The key takeaway here is not to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach when speaking to your employees because of the varied symptoms they could be experiencing.
Finally, be kind and patient.
If you have any HR queries, whether related to COVID-19 or something else entirely, get in touch today and speak to one of the team.
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