Should employers be worried about long Covid?
In January this year, MP Layla Morgan told the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that there were an estimated 300,000 people living with long Covid. Ms Moran went on to warn more than half of people hospitalised experienced ongoing symptoms six months later, and of those who were not hospitalised due to Covid, one in 10 still experienced symptoms three months later.
The APPG on coronavirus is calling for long Covid to be officially recognised as an occupational disease.
So, who’s most at risk of suffering?
We should remember that this is a new condition that the medical profession is still learning about. The research we have so far suggests that women may suffer greater effects of long Covid. At the same time, those who need hospital treatment for COVID-19 are more likely to be male and from an ethnic minority background.
It’s hard to say what the risk factors are, with the work needed to fully understand the condition still ongoing, but there is a suggestion that those aged between 40-60 are more at risk. More specifically, women under 50 are five times less likely than men of the same age to feel they are fully recovered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with existing medical conditions such as a cardiovascular conditions, asthma or type 2 diabetes are more susceptible to suffering long Covid.
So, what are the symptoms?
This is where things can get tricky. Due to this being such a new condition with wildly varying symptoms – ranging from loss of taste or smell, dizziness, anxiety, respiratory difficulties, severe fatigue, blood clots and even organ damage in some cases – it’s going to be difficult for employers to understand not only how to manage employees’ absence, but additionally how educate managers who need to support these individuals.
There have been documented instances of recovery and relapse. It’s quite common to see an individual making a good recovery, making them feel confident that they can take on more work, to then relapse into severe fatigue. This can feel frustrating for both employee and employer, and is likely to result in significant mental health impacts as well as employers feeling under pressure due loss of skills and resource.
How to approach long Covid in the workplace?
It’s important that employers do not just perceive long Covid as ‘post-virus fatigue.’ Discussions with employees need to be thoughtful, and on a case-by-case basis, to fully understand how the illness is affecting the employee as an individual and the impacts this is having on them in the workplace.
Employers should review their current sickness absence policies and whether these are fit for purpose. Due to the length and waves of relapse, it’s unlikely that absence can be approached in the traditional return-to-work format: a standard four to six-week return may not be enough to successfully reintegrate someone with long Covid without relapse. Employers should involve occupational health (OH) professionals as soon as possible.
Additionally, employers need to gain a good understanding of what their benefit providers are offering in support, such as private medical insurance and group income protection, and how employees or managers might engage with these services.
Think about your overall return to the office policy. While we see many employers not pressurising their employees to return quickly, and some taking an overall hybrid approach of office and home working, individuals suffering from long Covid may find home working especially valuable as they are better able to manage their rest and recovery while working from home.
What works for an individual at the start of their illness is likely to evolve and change depending on recovery and relapse. Therefore, having an OH professional at hand to undertake regular assessments will allow an employer to make reasonable adjustments. Though these do not currently exist in law, they could be viewed as more of a moral obligation.
Clearly an individual being absent on numerous occasions, especially with no real predictability, can have an impact on your wider teams due to loss of skills or even a potential vacuum if the individual is the only person able to undertake a specific role. Therefore it is good business practice to ensure your teams are more agile in being able to cover various roles.
So, going back to the initial question – should employers be worried about Long-Covid?
While it’s a further aspect of consideration in dealing with the outcomes of the global pandemic, those businesses that look to invest in both educating their managers, but also understand the support that is needed and available by engaging with their benefit providers and OH professionals, will be more prepared to make the required adjustments, allowing for a more agile and resilient business and an engaged and supported employee.
Amanda Cran – Head of Healthcare Proposition, Buck