Suzanne Marshall, Clinical Governance Officer at FirstCare, discusses how the UK public sector can cope with the expected rise in long Covid
The long tail of Covid has a particularly painful sting. As Covid cases increase, so do those of Long Covid. With the vaccination taking the emphasis away from mortality rates, Long Covid and its growing impact on the population is coming into sharper focus.
So, how can public sector leaders take a proactive approach to the rise in Long Covid cases and support the mental and physical health of their teams? How can they stay on the front foot, anticipating staffing trends and wellbeing issues in their teams before they occur? What data do they need to ensure organisational performance doesn’t slip?
Long Covid: Spotting the symptoms
Long Covid has presented itself over the last year in a myriad of ways, making it hard for workers and leaders alike to identify cases and provide support. Symptoms are broad and can have cognitive, physical and emotional impacts. This coupled with the fact that receiving an official Long Covid diagnosis can take months, highlights the challenge that leaders are likely to face.
Physical symptoms such as extreme fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath and dizziness will impair employee performance and leaders need to be prepared, offering support to those who are struggling. Crucially, the physical symptoms of Long Covid are often paired with mental and emotional symptoms too. Fear, shock and an increase in overall mental ill health will take its toll on staff performance and an ability to function at work.
This emerging correlation between Covid and mental health is extremely concerning. FirstCare’s insights show that one in every seven employees off work for Covid-related reasons will subsequently experience mental health troubles.
Evidence purports that early intervention prevents poor mental ill health from developing into much more serious and complex illnesses. With data showing three in five workers will leave their job after two mental health-related absences, leaders must prioritise the health and wellbeing of their teams.
Over the last 18 months, spending cuts, increased workloads, furlough schemes and uncertainty over the future have no doubt played a part in the rising number of public sector workers who have suffered from mental ill health. Our data shows the number of NHS staff affected by mental health troubles is rising, with a 25.2% increase in those taking time off for this reason between February and May 2021.
Insights to improve
Whilst leaders have a responsibility to protect the wellbeing of their teams, they should not be expected to carry the burden of identifying new mental and physical health conditions.
Instead, a holistic data-led approach to employee wellbeing can give leaders better insights into the overall health of their teams. Employee wellbeing has historically been treated as an HR issue when in fact, accurate data and insights around it will improve decision-making at a senior level – serving the health of staff and business alike. With the right insights, leaders are empowered and able to make the right decisions and support their workers at the same time.
How would this approach translate to Long Covid specifically? Ensuring HR professionals and managers are familiar with it, and that it is kept in consideration. Long Covid manifests itself in a variety of ways but crucially it lingers and recovery can be slow.
Add Long Covid to your absence policy: ensure that affected employees are not treated less favourably because of their illness. Could a phased return to work or flexible hours help? Engage with and listen to your team and signpost any support services your company may offer its staff. Aim to understand how Long Covid manifests itself and lookout for signs that someone may be struggling. Use data to spot patterns in time off to help identify potentially serious conditions – and mitigate repercussions on mental health.
By better understanding the nature, extent and causes of lost working days within your team, you can protect your workforce and provide support to employees at the vital early stages of any illness. Ultimately, we know that teams that invest in employee wellbeing not only have a healthier workforce but perform better. After the challenging previous 18 months the public sector has endured, what’s not to like about that?
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