Many businesses have been in prevention mode throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. By encouraging employees to work from home or in a distanced fashion either on or off site, they have been actively avoiding the spreading of COVID-19 between their employees.

However, as the pandemic evolves, we face the reality of dealing with coronavirus long-term. Businesses are moving from prevention to support. This is certainly the case with instances of long COVID which are on the rise, causing some employees to suffer from long-term, debilitating, side effects that impact them at work.

What is Long COVID?

‘Long COVID’ refers to the ongoing ill-health experienced by some people following the initial or acute period of the COVID-19 infection. For many people, COVID-19 is a short illness. However, for others, symptoms can persist and can be debilitating for weeks, or even months, after the virus is contracted.

What are the symptoms of Long COVID?

Just as the acute onset of COVID-19 can affect different people in different ways and to different degrees.

The reported symptoms of long COVID vary significantly between patients but can include the following:

  • Fatigue, or extreme tiredness;
  • Breathlessness and difficulty in breathing;
  • Cough;
  • Chest pain;
  • Racing pulse;
  • Joint and muscle pain;
  • Loss of taste or smell;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Prolonged fever;
  • Diarrhoea;
  • Dizziness;
  • Balance problems;
  • Skin rashes;
  • “Brain fog” – not being able to concentrate or think clearly;
  • Anxiety and depression.

Given the sheer volume of symptoms of long COVID, patients may not understand what is wrong with them and, therefore, may not know where to go for help.

Unfortunately, there is no single test to diagnose long COVID.

A local business owner, Stuart Bradley, suffered with at least 8 of these 15 symptoms. All post COVID, some appearing slowly over the two-month period since his initial diagnosis.

He describes his experience in more detail here, both in an article and a video interview:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/living-long-covid-running-my-own-business-slowly-learning-bradley/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkU-q_eiHVQ

How do I manage and support employees suffering with long COVID?

Awareness

It’s important to make sure you and your managers recognise the symptoms of long COVID and know where your employees can get help. There are long COVID centres and support groups through the NHS that can support your employees with their illness.

There are a couple of websites here which may be of use:

https://www.yourcovidrecovery.nhs.uk/

https://www.rcot.co.uk/post-covid-syndrome-long-covid

If someone has long COVID, business-wide recognition of the symptoms will mean that your employees can quickly start to receive the support they need, medically, personally, and professionally.

Sufferers of long COVID may be classed as having a disability, if their symptoms last more than 12 months and they meet the ‘disability’ definition. Although this is untested in the courts at the moment, it is likely that we will start to see cases coming through in the next few months.

Long COVID is likely to exacerbate any pre-existing condition (for example asthma) so some sufferers are already likely to meet the Equality Act 2010 definition of disability, and other protections in the Equality Act may be triggered as well.

Management

Doing what you can, as early as you can, will improve outcomes and help manage long COVID related absences in the future. Your timely intervention will not only help anyone in your team who is experiencing debilitating symptoms of long COVID but will also ensure that those who are unwell make a fuller, quicker recovery.

You should manage employees suffering from the effects of long COVID in a similar way to employees with other long-term conditions, although some extra considerations may be appropriate. You should consider the following as part of your management of the illness:

Risk assessments

COVID risk assessments should be undertaken prior to the return of absentees. Employees with long COVID have already caught COVID once before and may be vaccinated. However, they can be infected again so you should continue to follow appropriate measures to reduce risk.

Communication

You should talk to employees in good time before their return to work, to address concerns. Employees may have health and safety concerns about returning to the workplace or about catching COVID again. They may be concerned about the effect of their existing illness on their capability. You should address issues and provide reassurance if possible.

Process

You should follow a fair absence or sickness management process depending upon whether there is short-term or long-term sickness.

Sick pay

Employees with long COVID should be entitled to company (if applicable) or statutory sick pay, in a similar manner to any other employees on long-term sickness absence. However, long COVID symptoms vary, so discussions with each employee will be critical to identify how it affects them, to assess the support needed and tailor it to each individual employee.

Reasonable adjustments and occupational health

Given long COVID’s potential to affect many people, a review of your approach to reasonable adjustments would be a good idea.

Could you work more closely with someone who has been affected by long COVID, to check in regularly on their condition? Could you tweak their working arrangements in a continuous fashion to suit? Can your employees be successfully re-deployed to more suitable arrangements whilst they recover?

We appreciate that not every business has the means of employing an occupational health department, which is where outsourced services can be particularly valuable to ensure your assessment of someone’s needs is fair to them and your business. Specialists can work with you to work out the best way to repurpose a job role, so that the employee in question avoids burnout and relapse, whilst allowing them to make a valuable contribution to your business.

Permanent health insurance (PHI)

Some employers have PHI, employer’s liability or income protection insurance covering employees on long-term sick leave. Normally employees must meet eligibility criteria which can link to being disabled under the Equality Act 2010. Insurance policies may pay out and give full or partial salary when sick pay ends. It is thought that at least some long COVID sufferers will suffer from a disability and be entitled under PHI policies.

Disability

Employees with long COVID may have a disability, so you should consider what adjustments to duties, working from home or working hours could help them return to working or the workplace. Flexible working may be needed as people may be able to work better on some days than on others, as with those diagnosed with ME.

As mentioned previously, you should avoid treating employees less favourably because of their high levels of sickness absence as this could be direct disability discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability. Line managers should be educated about how to use sickness absence policies and procedures in a non-discriminatory way. If managers are unsupportive or disengaged regarding any matters resulting from the pandemic then wider workforce relations can be damaged. As long COVID appears more prevalent in specific categories of people; older people, ethnic minorities, and women, employers also must avoid discriminating by age, disability, race or sex.

How Hallidays HR can help

If you would like to discuss any of the above in more detail, then please do not hesitate to contact us on 0161 476 8276 or email hr@hallidays.co.uk.

Alternatively, take a look at our website: https://hallidays-hr.co.uk/