Sue Hazleton, Hertfordshire Growth Hub
It has recently been reported that more than two million people in England may have had long Covid (ONS), with around a million currently experiencing symptoms (React Study). Even within Hertfordshire it is estimated that 40,000 people have long Covid (Public Health). People experience different recovery rates, some facing long term health issues, with about a third of people suffering from symptoms for at least 12 weeks. Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, recently said that rates of long Covid are likely to increase significantly and this won’t be a trivial problem going forward.
With restrictions lifting, businesses re-opening and staff returning from furlough, we examine some of the possible implications for you and your organisation.
What is long COVID?
Long Covid is not yet fully understood and is a term used to describe the symptoms and effects of coronavirus that last longer than four weeks beyond the initial diagnosis. Symptoms vary between individuals and can affect multiple systems within the body. Some of the more common long Covid symptoms, which last long after the initial infection, include persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog (cognitive challenges), insomnia, heart palpitations, dizziness, joint pain, pins and needles, tinnitus, depression and anxiety. Symptoms are unpredictable and can fluctuate over time, with periods of recovery and relapse. There are currently no tests to diagnose long Covid.
Staff may physically struggle, emotionally struggle, and on top of that also financially struggle.
How organisations may be impacted by long Covid
As long Covid is a new health condition, it is challenging to gauge how staff and the organisation are going to be impacted. There are concerns that much of the problem of long Covid is being masked through continued home working or staff being furloughed. Some sectors already have a shortage of workers and the effects of long Covid may exacerbate this situation. The long-term absence of one member of staff can have a knock-on impact on other team members, affecting their workload, motivation and wellbeing.
These and other considerations should be taken into account in supporting staff back to the workplace. A well-managed return to work also decreases the likelihood of the returning staff member claiming unfair dismissal or discrimination.
Whether long Covid is treated as a disability
There is an ongoing debate as to whether employers should view long Covid as a workforce disability in line with the Equality Act 2010. This states that a disability is a physical or mental impairment that is substantial and long-term negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities. The disability therefore is defined as having lasted or will last for at least 12 months or can come and go and is likely to last for the rest of the person’s life. As long Covid is a new disease and is still not fully understood, it probably makes sense for employers to focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make rather than trying to work out if an employee’s condition is a disability.
Supporting staff with long Covid and returning to work
Dealing with long Covid and managing a return to work are a clear balancing act for employers and their employees, but it is important to remember that the usual rules for sickness absence and sick pay apply when someone is off work due to long Covid.
There are now 69 NHS long Covid rehabilitation clinics set up across England where staff with long Covid symptoms can be referred to via their GP, including a virtual service through Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust. The new centres bring together doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to offer both physical and psychological assessments and refer patients to the right treatment and rehabilitation services.
If a staff member is on sick leave It is good practice for line managers to keep in touch, even if this is just a telephone call agreed between the employee and manager, to ask how they are and if there is anything they can do to help. Line managers can support staff by having regular wellbeing conversations and signposting to wellbeing services and psychological support if appropriate.
You don’t necessarily need to be knowledgeable about the person’s health condition, but it’s important to show good people management skills, including sensitivity, empathy and understanding for the individual.
Although recovery from long Covid can be slow and the fluctuation of symptoms can be unpredictable, many people improve with time. Returning to work is part of the recovery process, but it may have to be flexible or on a phased return at first, with work adjustments or job modifications over many months.
Although this is a new condition, there is a great deal of research being conducted into long Covid adding to our knowledge and leading to guidance and treatment options. If your organisation is impacted by long Covid you can access further updated information and guidance as below:
For general information on long Covid, the NHS provides updated information: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/long-term-effects-of-coronavirus-long-covid/
The CIPD have recently published guidance for line managers on managing a return to work after long-term absence, including absence due to long Covid: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/absence/managing-return-to-work-after-long-term-absence?utm_source=mc&utm_medium=email&utm_content=cipdupdate_30062021.EdL1_Long_Absence_Guide&utm_campaign=cipd_update&utm_term=5169292
ACAS have advice on long Covid for employers and employees: Sickness and absence because of long COVID: Long COVID – advice for employers and employees - Acas
The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) have produced guidance for managers: https://www.som.org.uk/covid-19-return-work-guide-managers
NHS Employers’ website features a number of organisations that have developed a range of good practice videos and guidance to help employers support their staff: https://www.nhsemployers.org/articles/making-reasonable-adjustments-support-disabled-staff-their-roles