How businesses can cope with the effects of Long Covid in the workplace

long Covid in the workplace
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Gill Nye, Executive Head of HR at Cantium Business Solutions, explores the effect Long Covid will have on the workplace, with a particular focus on occupational health provision

Long Covid is still something of a mystery, not least to employers and occupational health teams. We know the symptoms, which are similar to other chronic illnesses: fatigue, breathlessness, ‘brain fog’, and even cardiac difficulties. Individuals can live with this debilitating condition for many weeks and months after the initial period of infection, and we know that this is an epidemic that isn’t likely to lessen in intensity any time soon.

Following a period of increased Covid-19 infections during July 2021, data from the Office of National Statistics suggest that 1.1 million have experienced long Covid symptoms in the four weeks leading up to the 5th of September.

Organisations and business leaders are still grappling with how to support a new cohort of employees who have acquired long Covid, so where should they start? What is the best way to keep managers informed, employees supported, and the business running?

Anticipating the needs of the workforce

It may sound simple but plan ahead as much as possible. Although this is such an unpredictable situation, it is a big part of making sure individuals are properly supported.

Infection rates remain stubbornly high, and that presents a potential staffing issue that has a likelihood of becoming more challenging as time goes on. How can managers and HR teams prepare for this?

The first step would be to understand the nature of chronic illness itself, and how it can affect people. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) definition provides an overview of the condition. When it comes to the nature of long Covid, it is chronic. Chronic conditions can be quite changeable; there are peaks and troughs, and the troughs can be quite sudden and debilitating. On a bad day, ‘pushing through it’ may well make it worse. These things, as well as the difficulty in diagnosing the condition in the first place, can complicate the support processes.

It’s hard to spot the illness, and therefore the need for support, early on. Employers need to be aware that the minimum time threshold for diagnosis is twelve weeks, meaning individuals will have symptoms for at least three months at a similar intensity with no signs of them subsiding. During this period of time, it’s helpful to collect as much knowledge as possible and predict the possible support that might be needed. This is best done with management, occupational health, and the employee all involved, considering ways that the workplace can work for the individual.

A phased return, often used after injury or surgery, might not always be the best introduction back into the workplace. Different symptoms from fatigue to joint pain can go on for months, so a defined short-term phase back into the workplace, is likely to be too rigid, and not facilitate an eventual return. Reduced hours and home working can be a workable solution for as long as they are needed. Also, consider setting up emotional support for potential mental health issues in the meantime. Long-term, a reduction in hours in addition to enforced and regular rest breaks can be an option. A focus on pacing themselves, even a change of role might be necessary.

It starts from the top

Getting to know long Covid isn’t just down to the person with the illness, but also the organisation’s leaders, and any line managers. As with any organisational change, it starts with strong advocacy and knowledge from the top. It’s important that employers, managers and HR teams understand the impact of Long Covid and the ways that occupational health can support someone, and how vital that can be as an element of the employee’s management of the illness.

We often see employees in our occupational health clinics who have been diagnosed by their GP as having Long Covid or who we determine as meeting the criteria for Long Covid. Roughly, we could say that 10% of employees assessed come out with that diagnosis – which is a huge proportion, and significant enough for particular consideration by workplace decision-makers and anyone involved in employee wellbeing. Working with an occupational health team to stay informed on the person and the process, employers can best prepare to support individuals.

Once an individual is referred to occupational health, they can be assessed for their fitness for work. Can they do the job to the same extent? Are there any adjustments that need to be made in order to keep the person on board? It’s also important to note that reviews of fitness to work can be made at a later date, so the first decision reached does not have to be the final decision.

Ensuring support for employees

No one wants to rely on overstretched GPs for conditions that can have such a strong link to their ability to work, and they don’t have to. Employees should have access to occupational health support. If it isn’t already in place, it’s essential to grow that capability, whether in the house or through a delivery partner. The partner should have an understanding of the different roles at the company they are working with, so they can complete referrals correctly.

Without it, employees will have no choice but to visit their GP and access support through that route. The GP, while providing exceptional primary care, is limited in their understanding of the workplace and how a period of chronic illness can affect the individual in their role.

Planning ahead, collaborating with different parts of the organisation, and taking a proactive approach is the key take-away here. Work to build your knowledge and capabilities as an organisation to act as a strong network of support for employees.


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